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“One more heave” doesn’t work: we need a new peace paradigm for the Middle East

This article first was first published in Prospect.

The old paradigm of peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians is exhausted and a new one is needed. “Old peace” meant set-piece, time-limited, bilateral negotiations, mediated by the United States with the goal of reaching a permanent agreement based on separation between Israel and the Palestinians. Three efforts have ended in failure: Camp David-Taba in 2000-1, Annapolis in 2007 and the Kerry Talks of 2014. “One more heave” is unlikely to work.

“New peace” also means direct negotiations and a final status agreement, of course. But there is an emerging consensus about two things. First, that future success will depend on creating something that has been lacking so far: a supportive environment in which bilateral negotiations move from a framework agreement through incremental implementation to successful final status talks. Second, this means new approaches and securing the participation of new actors: a regional framework that draws in the Arab states, and grassroots social movements that animate both peoples.

Last year, I helped organise a series of unofficial discussions between Israelis and Palestinians and heard the same message from both grizzled negotiators and younger activists: civil society has a key role to play and it has been neglected, patronised, and even demonised. Today, it is too often the spoilers rather than the peacemakers that receive the élan, the budgets and the backing of global civil society. Yet social movements promoting mutual recognition, compromise and a political solution may now be essential for leaders to be able to articulate a shared language of peace in public—and if the excruciating compromises required by any final-status deal are to be eventually made.

The participants knew that public opinion on both sides is now deeply distrustful of the other and desperately pessimistic about the future. And worse, the young are more distrustful and pessimistic than the old. Two typically anguished questions were “The Palestinian street will dictate what will happen. How do we bring a different message to the people?” and “Israelis are not tackling public opinion. Where are we going wrong?”

A new report commissioned for BICOM and written by Ned Lazarus, “A Future for Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding,” will help them and us to find answers. Lazarus is both a hands-on peacebuilder with a long history of field-work and an academic expert on conflict-resolution. The report is the most comprehensive and detailed study yet of the value of grassroots peacebuilding projects, both “cross-border” projects involving Israelis and Palestinians and “shared society” projects between Jews and Arabs within Israel itself.

The report uses case studies, statistics and evaluations to prove three things. First, that these kinds of projects work: they create peacebuilders and constituencies for peace, they change attitudes, they create trust and empathy between peoples, and they improve life on the ground in practical ways. And, as shown by the work of several groups, including Eco-Peace—an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian NGO which has helped Israel double its water supply to the Palestinian Authority—peacebuilding projects can change government policy too.

Second, peacebuilding projects have been one of the missing ingredients in the peace process thus far. It’s time to involve the successful “cross-border” projects such as Seeds of Peace, Parents Circle Families Forum, or the Near East Foundation (NEF) Olive Oil Without Borders project, and also the “shared society” projects such as Sikkuy, Merchavim, the Hand-in-Hand school network and the Abraham Fund Initiatives. Third and finally, it’s time for a step-change in the support the international community gives to the peacebuilders.

In the report’s preface Jonathan Powell, the chief British negotiator during the Northern Ireland peace process, reminds us what the unsung hero of that process was. By supporting intercommunal civil society engagement, the International Fund for Ireland (IFI), contributed hugely to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The fund promoted economic and community development, tackled the underlying causes of sectarianism and violence and fostered reconciliation. “I am in no doubt that the Fund was essential in consolidating peace,” writes Powell.

No surprise then, that one of the main recommendations of the report is that the UK government support an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace—an idea pioneered by the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a coalition of over 100 peacebuilding organisations.

Lazarus is never Panglossian. He does not duck the challenges faced by peacebuilding—from the stark asymmetries of power between the two parties to the navigation of cultural differences, from short-term funding regimes to the attacks of spoilers on both sides. Lazarus brings creative thinking to the question of how to meet those challenges.

The “heroic” era of the peace process—with its set-pieces and fixed timetables in search of a final handshake on the White House lawn—is over. But the peace process is not. Each previous failure has cost us greatly. We cannot afford to fail again.

Alan Johnson is Senior Research Fellow at BICOM, and Editor of Fathom. The report, “A future for Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding”, can be read here.