JERUSALEM: What turns out to have long-term impact doesn’t always make the headlines at first. This past month I was part of an ALLMEP (Alliance for Middle East Peace) delegation. As an umbrella for over seventy member organizations, ALLMEP advocates for a wide range of people-to-people peace building efforts that encourage meaningful contact between Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews. Recent meetings were held in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Tel Aviv and Amman. The objective: to gather international support for the creation of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. Combined with a tenacious peace process at the official levels, this initiative contains the potential to shift the realities of the Middle East.
A solid majority of Palestinians and Israelis say that they support peace. However, most do not believe that peace will come. Solid majorities believe that there is "no partner" on "the other side".
How could they think otherwise when their conceptions are formed by what they see on their televisions, what they hear around their dinner tables, in their schools, on their streets? Although they share the same landscape, Palestinians and Israelis inhabit different planets, receive different streams of information, hold different assumptions and worldviews.
When Palestinians and Israelis have the opportunity to engage with one another in a substantial way, they don’t put up their hands and say, "Oh, you are right after all". Instead, they learn that as John Wallach, the founder of Seeds of Peace used to put it, "the enemy has a face". Disagreements remain ferocious. But sustained and meaningful interaction between Palestinians and Israelis and their respective supporters builds mutual respect, trust, and understanding. With fundamental disagreements intact, people figure out ways to approach the needs of the other, ways to share that small patch of earth known as the "Holy Land". This is how public opinion changes, one individual at a time.
The recent ALLMEP delegation met with high-level officials, including the Palestinian prime minister, the Israeli prime minister’s office, the chief of the Jordanian Royal Court, the American and European ambassadors in Israel, and a representative from George Mitchell’s team.
ALLMEP is the first significant attempt by participating organizations to cooperate on strategy, to coordinate our common work, to multiply our impact. There is broad support at the highest official levels for what ALLMEP represents and for significantly increasing work on the grassroots level to build a constituency for peace. The responsibility for supporting such efforts must be shared by the United States, and Arab and European countries.
The American military budget currently stands at $549 billion, not including the cost of the Iraqi and Afghan wars, which add another $159 billion. This year the House Armed Services subcommittee designated more money to the Defence Department than the secretary of defence requested. Among other things, the additional money includes $50 million for what the New York Times describes as "an airborne laser that experts agree doesn’t work".
The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Fund promoted by ALLMEP proposes two hundred million dollars for the first year. We ask the United States to contribute $50 million, the cost of that airborne laser; we request equal amounts from the Europeans, the Arabs, and a combination of Asian countries and private donors.
During the successful Northern Ireland peace process, diplomatic efforts worked in tandem with people-to-people initiatives supported by an international fund. People-to-people diplomacy in Northern Ireland touched approximately one-sixth of the population, at the cost of roughly $650 million.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is arguably the single most inflammatory issue in the world today: The status quo is unbearable. Ordinary people have tremendous potential power on the world stage, as the example of the Gaza flotilla shows. But the kind of confrontation that took place on the flotilla leads to further conflict. It is not an example of what can lead to positive change. The cameras roll. "The other side" becomes a cartoon. "They" are this. "They" are that. Tempers flare. Hatred grows.
The real challenge of people to people initiatives is to give the participants the opportunity to root themselves in a more complex and humane reality. The challenge is to inspire a people-to-people movement that reduces conflict, while increasing mutual respect and hope.
To reach the same proportion of Israelis and Palestinians that was reached in Northern Ireland would require billions of dollars. Considering the stakes involved, this peace fund proposal is a good start, and the right investment to make.
Daniel Noah Moses, Ph.D., formerly a lecturer on social studies at Harvard University, is currently Director of the Delegation Leaders Program at Seeds of Peace. He recently published his first book, The Promise of Progress: The Life and Work of Lewis Henry Morgan. He lives in Jerusalem. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).