At some point during this weekend’s G7 Summit in Cornwall, England, the gathered leaders will surely discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which forced itself to the fore with last month’s tragic violence. Much of the discussion will be frustratingly familiar: shore up the ceasefire, rebuild Gaza, and look for diplomatic openings. More than once, we’ve seen the unstable status quo that this recipe produces.
But there is another path. In fact a buzz has been building about an opportunity that the G7 offers — by issuing a simple statement — to set in motion a new bottom-up approach that can disrupt the usual obstacles to peace over the long term. Among those traveling for the summit, First Lady Jill Biden may be the only one who’s personally seen just how powerful the promise of this grassroots strategy is, and she could have a great impact by elevating it in her conversations before and during the G7.
The idea is simple: Issue a joint statement committing to explore the creation of a new peacebuilding institution, the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. It is a concept that is gaining popularity among experts, thought leaders, legislators, and governments attending the G7. In fact, the summit’s host, the U.K., has already endorsed the idea, and just last week 65 Parliamentarians urged using the G7 to bring such a fund into being.
Creating and endowing such an institution would give someone the job and resources to do day-in and day-out what diplomats can’t: build real, on-the-ground, daily-life partnerships between millions of Israelis and Palestinians so that the people on each side know they have partners for peace. This is not a substitute for difficult diplomacy. But, 30 years of negotiations without trust make clear that it is a prerequisite.
First Lady Jill Biden may be the only one in the U.S. delegation who can speak firsthand about the power and impact of this people-powered approach. In Jerusalem in March 2010, she visited with some of the youngest and most inspiring peacebuilders: the adorable Arab and Jewish preschoolers at the Arab-Jewish preschool at the Jerusalem International YMCA. She saw them laugh, talk, and play — doing ordinary kid things in an extraordinary place. With their Jewish and Arab teachers, they learned each other’s languages, holidays, songs, and histories.
Today, those preschoolers are teenagers. For those who continued to engage with “the other side” over the years, the research shows that they are more likely to believe that they have partners for peace and will be more willing to work for it. But sadly, there are far too few of them.
Most others of their generation have never met the other. They’ve seen only the most extreme voices and villains. Most have grown up more divided, fearful, and cynical than their parents. They doubt that peace is possible or worth trying. We saw what happens when such a generation takes to the streets in violent mobs. The kids Dr. Biden met were the exception rather than the rule. If only we had invested differently — on a large scale — 10, 20, and 30 years ago.
One preschool, or even a dozen, is nothing compared with the size and momentum of the conflict and the forces that seek to pass it onto the next generation. This is true even when considering that more than 150 people-to-people organizations are already creating partnerships in every sphere of life, from education and medicine to high-tech, agriculture, business, sports, and the arts. Many of these programs have waiting lists of Israelis and Palestinians who want to engage. A strategic, sustained investment is the only thing holding them back from touching enough lives to make a historic difference.
This strategy worked once before — in Northern Ireland. During the violent Troubles of the 1980s, rather than pursue diplomacy bound to fail, the U.S. led a coalition of allies to create an enduring multilateral institution to invest in daily life partnerships and trust: the International Fund for Ireland. Then-Senator Biden was among its many bipartisan supporters in Congress. Over 30 years — starting 12 years before a peace deal — it harnessed investments of $2.4 billion in joint social and economic development. It helped peoples become partners.
This week’s G7 can launch a similar, long overdue effort for Israelis and Palestinians. The moment is fertile. After the recent violence, everyone wants to help but no one wants to just rinse and repeat. There is U.S. money already on the table with the Lowey Act’s $250 million commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding. And there is an international appetite to collaborate on a truly large-scale intervention. Among G7 nations, the U.K. is on record in support of creating an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, and Canada just committed millions for peacebuilding, too. But all eyes look to the U.S. to raise the issue.
The stars are aligned to do things differently this time. A simple joint statement committing to further talks about an international fund could set us on another path entirely. This is why the First Lady would do a great service to the cause of peace if she would share with others at the G7 what she saw that day in Jerusalem in 2010. Her brief focus on the issue and personal experience could ensure it gets the attention it deserves.