In it for the long haul: The Israeli-Palestinian peace-building community in turbulent times

The recent annual conference of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), an umbrella organization of over 100 civil society organizations working on Israeli-Palestinian peace-building, offers a unique opportunity to get a glimpse into the doings of this community and reflect on the way forward for civil society in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian peace-building efforts.

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Project Phoenix attended a conference in Jerusalem organized by The Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP)

In the aftermath of the recent Israeli national elections and the likely scenario, in which PM Netanyahu will assemble his fourth consecutive, and hitherto most right-wing government, the stagnation of peace talks between Israelis and the Palestinians is likely to continue.  Surprisingly enough, despite the utter collapse of the formal peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and the pervasiveness of the so called “Status-Quo”, the Israeli-Palestinian peace-building eco-system remains resilient, lively and diverse. The recent annual conference of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), an umbrella organization of over 100 civil society organizations working on Israeli-Palestinian peace-building, offers a unique opportunity to get a glimpse into the doings of this community and reflect on the way forward for civil society in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian peace-building efforts.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace-building community: Taking the pulse

Among 20.000 CSOs registered in Israel in 2017, as many as 164 registered Israeli Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are active in the field of Israeli-Palestinian peace-building. Whereas the proportion is rather small, and in the Palestinian territories even smaller, organizations have managed to evolve, sharpen their profile and diversify their fields of activity. Indeed, ALLMEPʼs members now cover a broad range of sectors from urban planning, to sports or the environment. ʻWomen Wage Peaceʼ, for example, one of its youngest yet fastest growing members was established only five years ago following the military operation “Protective Edge” and now mobilizes tens of thousands of women from different backgrounds for public peace-making activities.

The stagnation of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians affects both societies[1], leading to widespread skepticism regarding the viability of peace between the two peoples in general, and peace building activities in particular, thus contributing to increased alienation of peace activists. Indeed, one of the main challenges facing peace-building organizations is manifested in a negative perception of their work within their respective communities; Israeli peace building organizations are stigmatized as “leftists”, whereby their work is discredited and branded as naïve or detrimental to Israeli security interests; similarly, Palestinian activists are frequently brand-marked as aids of the normalization of Israeli occupation; thus, though claiming to advance the rights of Palestinians, representatives of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement, seeking to isolate Israel politically, economically and culturally, have been reported to disrupt the work of Palestinian peace organizations and harass peace activists in East Jerusalem and the West bank in the attempt to undermine their efforts to work together with Israelis.

The peace-building community and political realities

“We do not have the majority on our side; neither do we have the Israeli or Palestinian youth on our side”. With these words the outgoing ALLMEP executive director Joel Braunold addressed around 150 representatives of CSOs invested in the promotion of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, which came together at the Tantur Ecumenical center to reflect on how to effectively promote peace building efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. If the elections had one take-away lesson, Braunold continued, it would be that change will not come from the governmental level, but only from the bottom up. Despite the communicated sense of urgency, Braunold called on the participants to acknowledge the fact that civil society will not be able to bring about change in the near future and will need to plan its efforts for the long term.

According to Braunold, currently neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian youth are supportive of peace-building despite them constituting the main target group of CSOsʼ coexistence initiatives. The voting behavior of young people in Israel mirrors this observation: According to a survey by the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research, 64% of 18-24 year olds in Israel were supportive of Benyamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister whereas only 17% were supportive of the centrist candidate Benny Gantz. As explained by Laura Adkins and Ben Sales, not having known any real peace process in their lifetime could illuminate Israeli youthʼ skepticism regarding the chances of reconciliation between the two peoples as well as their leaning towards the right-wing parties.

In addition to the political situation on the ground, the state of global affairs and particularly the positioning of United States as a central player in the Middle East, have always played a major role in the speed and direction of peace building between Israelis and Palestinians. President Trumpʼs foreign policy in this regard has brought about a major shift, increasing pressure on the Palestinian Authority by severely cutting financial aid while at the same time easing pressure on the Israeli government´s settlement policy and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; and while “The Deal of the Century” is yet a well-kept secret, it is expected to steer away from the hitherto propagated two-state solution and omit “final status” issues.

In a cautious attempt to address the elephant in the room, namely the disrupting effects of the Trump administration’s policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Deborah Lyons, Canada´s Ambassador to Israel, shared her concern regarding the erosion of the liberal world order, figuratively referring to Robert Kagan´s recently published book “The Jungle Grows Back”. Lyons acknowledged the shrinking spaces for civil society and diplomacy in fostering peace but emphasized CSO´s important achievements in providing politicians and diplomats alike with concrete stories exemplifying positive developments on the ground despite the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Representatives of the CSOs, which participated in the conference, appreciated her expression of solidarity, but stressed the Canadian government´s responsibility to oppose what they perceived as detrimental policies to peace-building by the US as well as the Israeli and the Palestinian Authority themselves.

Further hurdles preoccupying civil society organizations constituted legislation putting them under increased suspicion and scrutiny, particularly regarding funding from abroad, as well as their underrepresentation in the media, restricting their visibility and opportunity for positive outreach. Director Braunold bemoaned the fact that the growing asymmetry of power both between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as between both parties´ civil society activists and their respective governments, served to advance a symmetry of mistrust between the two sides and within the community between CSOs and authorities.

Peace-building and the rupture in funding

Funding remains a crucial factor in civil society work which is strongly susceptible to changing political realities domestically and internationally, as exemplified by the recent decision by the US government to cut USAID assistance to the West Bank and Gaza as of January 2019. Instead of relying on funding from one primary source, ALLMEP has brought forth a proposal for the creation of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace that ought to create a diverse funding base, quartering the fund´s volume between the United States, the European Union, the Arab World, and Asia. The private sector is sought to be involved as well in the cause of the fund’s implementation.

Even though ALLMEP´s blueprint does not constitute a reaction to President Trump´s cuts in funding, its diversification strategy could serve to overcome two related obstacles: Firstly, it offers to decrease the dependence on the United States, which not only ceases to be the most prominent funder of the UN relief agency and of projects in the West Bank and Gaza via the Palestinian Authorities, but might seek to retreat from the war-torn region altogether. Secondly, quartering of the fund also factors in changes in perception of the stakeholders on the ground vis-à-vis the dominant funders. “Israelis might not feel encouraged by a project with a blue flag and golden stars on it, whereas Palestinians have developed doubts as to the intentions of American aid as well as assistance from Arab states, initially their strongest allies”, summarized John Lyndon, ALLMEP’s European and incoming executive director. Since 2018 ALLMEP has a representative for Europe, formerly based in London, now in Paris. A timely move, given that in the context of the United States´ receding the European Union becomes the most prominent funder of civil-society in the peace-building field.

Besides financial bottlenecks, the apparently unintended consequences of the United States Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA), passed by congress in 2018, added a legal hurdle to CSO’s peace-building efforts. The law seeks to make it easier for American victims of terrorist attacks to take legal action against entities that may have supported such assault. Understanding that the bill de facto placed the Palestinian Authority under U.S court jurisdiction for accepting U.S. financial assistance and thus potentially making the PA liable to billions of dollars legal liabilities, it refused to accept U.S. funding. This resulted not only in a disruption to all U.S. security assistance to the PA, but also ended funding for coexistence programs of CSOs in the peace-building field. Within ALLMEP this particularly affects organizations like Ecopeace, the Arava Institute and the Parents Circle Families Forum. With the U.S. government shutdown over, ALLMEP´s work now concentrates on advocating for and advising on the modification of the piece of legislation.

The peace-building communityʼs future outlook

In line with Braunoldʼs plea to overcome the urgency and plan ahead, ALLMEP launched its alumni program, encouraging all members to designate a responsible person for the coordination of the network’s alumni work. Civil society in the peace-building field increasingly recognizes the importance of their activities’ sustainability in order to go beyond mere networking, but offer their communities a network of likeminded individuals and equip them with the necessary tools to take on ownership of initiatives. In this regard, participants agreed to continue making youth a priority target group but to also strengthen efforts to integrate parents and educators of children and youth already participating in peace-building activities.

Given the  shrinking space for the work of CSOs driven by tense Israeli-Palestinian governmental relations as well as hostilities within communities against co-existence, some civil society organizations see themselves torn on whether to try and work from “within the system” or rather to vocally oppose it. Either approach runs the risk of causing resentment among potential partners. The ALLMEP peace-building community seemed to agree that using de-escalating techniques in coexistence programs and at best avoiding conflictual discourse was for the time being the best approach to overcoming old trenches and building new bridges.

In the face of the stagnating Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the weakening of the US position as a neutral broker between the two sides, civil society work for peace between the two sides may seem like a tiny drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, as incoming ALLMEP director John Lyndon rightly put it, “people to people is for now the only game in town.”

[1] Since 2018 believers in a two state solutions have become a minority in both Israel and Palestine. Only a minority on each side expresses trust in the other or believes the other side supports peace. Shikaki, K.; Scheindlin, D. (2019): Role of Public Opinion in the Resilience/Resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. Palestinian Center for policy and survey research & the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, accessed May 10, 2019.