Avi Meyerstein
Avi Meyerstein
Founder of ALLMEP

What Congress and Samantha Power should discuss Thursday

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power toured the Max Rayne Bilingual Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem, where she visited the first-grade classroom targeted by arsonists in November 2014 and engaged with students and faculty Monday, February 15, 2016.
Then-US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power visits Arab and Jewish students at the bilingual Hand in Hand school. Credit: Matty Stern / US Embassy Tel Aviv.

On Thursday, USAID Administrator Samantha Power will be the first among the Biden foreign policy team to testify before Congress since a ceasefire quieted the most brutal violence between Israelis and Palestinians in years. The hearing, focused on USAID’s global budget, certainly has much ground to cover all around the world. But fresh wounds in the Middle East may get disproportionate attention. 

Some may be tempted to focus on partisan posturing, but millions of Israelis and Palestinians deserve better from us. For those subcommittee members genuinely interested in exploring how the US – and Samantha Power in particular – can take steps to reduce conflict, there is one issue worth particular attention: USAID’s plans for implementing and growing the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA), a brand-new funding stream created by Congress just months ago to rebuild Israeli-Palestinian relations from the bottom up. 

The appropriators at the hearing are well aware of the new law; it is named after their recently-retired chairwoman. MEPPA commits $250 million over the next five years, making it the largest-ever single investment in Israeli-Palestinian grassroots peacebuilding. When Congress passed the law in December, it did not know that the conflict would flare up this month, leaving thousands injured, hundreds killed, millions traumatized, and gangs of thugs lynching innocents in the streets. 

Yet the nightmare that just ended is exactly what MEPPA aims to prevent in the future by changing, over the long term, key dynamics that help perpetuate the conflict. The sponsors of MEPPA recognized that the conflict will never end – and the cycle of violence will continue to deepen and repeat – without a major intervention to engage Israelis and Palestinians as partners to build trust and combat dehumanization, incitement, and hate.

The claims of two peoples over the same land present ample political challenges: occupation, violence, insecurity, discrimination, joblessness, poverty, inequality, and more. Ultimately, these will only be solved through difficult negotiations. But diplomacy has failed every time because even when most people support peace, they don’t believe they have a trustworthy partner on the other side. For too long, a rigid focus on top-down final status negotiations has led us to pay too little attention to the lived experience of the people whose consent will decide whether the conflict actually ends.

Israelis and Palestinians need to be vested in each other’s lives and success, not just in each other’s fear and death. That’s the problem MEPPA seeks to solve by building widespread partnerships in everything from schools, sports, and start-ups to jobs, energy, and water. Rigorous studies have shown these programs to be incredibly effective, yet until now they have never received the kind or amount of funding needed to transform not only individual lives but whole communities. 

The campaign to pass MEPPA was inspired by just such a grassroots intervention in Northern Ireland, where an international consortium brought $2.4 billion of investment to grassroots partnerships over 30+ years. Through the International Fund for Ireland (IFI), the US and our allies invested deeply in creating resilient economic and civic ties between Unionist and Nationalist communities, beginning more than a decade before a peace accord. The U.K.’s Chief Negotiator called the IFI “the great unsung hero” of the peace process. MEPPA could launch a similar effort in the Middle East.

Administrator Power will be testifying before the very subcommittee that will have to actually appropriate these funds. Especially given the urgency of the moment, members should be eager to hear her plans, vision, and timeline for launching funding as soon as possible. One challenge is a 12-month delay built into MEPPA before establishing the people-to-people program. In light of the recent violence, it’s worth exploring ways to move up the timeline on an emergency basis, perhaps as one part of a bigger Israeli-Palestinian crisis response package. 

The subcommittee may also be particularly interested in steps USAID can take right away to launch MEPPA funding. The law charges Administrator Power with appointing the chairperson of an advisory board to guide USAID’s implementation. She’s also the one empowered to fill advisory board seats reserved for representatives of foreign governments. So far, the board apparently remains empty. Administrator Power could help bring MEPPA to life by quickly filling these seats under her control, including appointing a chair to help organize and launch the board and funding.

This highlights another issue that’s ripe for discussion: how the U.S. will fulfill MEPPA’s calls to partner with our allies in scaling up Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding. In the successful Northern Ireland example, a multinational institution meant not only significantly more money but also critical street credibility when donors respected by both sides of the conflict were behind it. The IFI’s structure as an independent international institution meant concentrating in one place the expertise, coordination, strategy, and capacity-building necessary to scale an entire field.

In the case of MEPPA, several foreign governments, led by the U.K., have already reached out to the U.S. to express interest in partnering in this Israeli-Palestinian initiative. Congress should know that other countries are ready to follow and match the U.S. lead. Even more critically, Administrator Power can take a lead role in turning that multilateral interest into action, perhaps by working with Secretary Blinken to convene a discussion with allies at the upcoming G7 or the UN General Assembly. This could not only allow every dollar invested by the U.S. to be matched by our allies, but it could also allow funds to start flowing sooner.

Administrator Power is a particularly appropriate leader on these issues given her unique background and role. She has seen conflict resolution both on the ground and in the halls of power. From her formative years in Ireland, she understands both the reality of deeply embedded conflict and the possibility of ending it. She’s keenly attuned to the opportunities of multilateral cooperation from years at the UN. She understands the need to deploy a full suite of tools to secure and keep peace. Her role in the president’s inner circle and on the National Security Council position her well to follow through, including on MEPPA’s intent to operate at a systemic level, turning a field of grassroots investments into a policy tool.

During the hearing, Congress might be interested to hear that she’s also seen some of this work in action in Israel. On a visit in 2016, she played basketball with Arab and Jewish kids at PeacePlayers, experiencing first-hand the power of their hard-earned teamwork and partnership. She met with young Arab and Jewish classmates at the Hand in Hand bilingual school. She then spoke to Arab and Jewish youth at a model UN, where she described what’s possible when “enough individuals come together” and when we use multilateralism to “force multiply.” 

As she told the kids, “You cannot underestimate the transformational power that individuals have to make change.” By coming together across conflict lines, “you have the power to show your families, your communities, and ultimately the world that what seems insurmountable is in fact within reach.” Her visit to Congress this week is an opportunity to talk about how to go from micro to macro, multiplying such individual and local transformations into the kind of large-scale change that can alter the course of a conflict.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power with Arab and Jewish young people who play together with PeacePlayers. Credit: Matty Stern / U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv.
About the Author
Avi Meyerstein is the founder and president of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), the coalition of 150 NGOs building people-to-people cooperation and partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. The views expressed are his own.
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