US President Barack Obama.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
Conventional wisdom says this is not the time to forge a peace agreement between
Israel and the Palestinians. Conventional wisdom also says we have passed
midnight for a two state solution; unconventional wisdom says clocks can be
Since the start of the President Barack Obama’s second term,
the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have been focusing time and
effort to end this decades-long conflict. Precisely because things are so
uncertain and bleak in that region, this is the time to address the
The Arab Spring, as we see again in Egypt, has created its own
long volatile season which may take decades to return to a calmer and hopefully
more democratic and consistent climate. It is only a matter of time before the
bloody and messy civil war in Syria puts further pressure on the Hashemite
Kingdom of Jordan and then easily spills over into the Palestinian territories
and Israel. An oasis of relative calm and stability remains in Jordan, the
Palestinian Authority and Israel. We must assure those entities are not
swallowed up by the tumult of their neighborhood. A key ingredient for that
cohesion to hold is an agreement between the Israelis and
An asset that has been underutilized in the administration
are the scores and scores of civil society people to people (P2P) programs that
forge productive relationships between Israelis and Palestinians.
programs, many of them funded by US tax payers through USAID, produce tangible
real-world examples of what is possible.
The president, from his
background as a community organizer and how his campaigns have been run, clearly
understands the power of grassroots activities. That insight needs to be
translated into the negotiations between the Israelis and the
There are many factors that have prevented an agreement
from being reached over the years. Fear and paralysis can trap negotiators with
even the best of intentions, who have an inclination to focus more on what may
go wrong, which does need to be addressed, at the expense of the positive
outcomes an agreement can produce.
The negotiators need to be reminded of
what is possible.
To address this holding back of imagination, the
president should invite Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and PA President
Mahmoud Abbas to a roundtable of representatives of Palestinian and Israel P2P
programs. There they will hear from the likes of the Arava Institute for
Environmental Studies, the Parents Circle, PeacePlayers, the Search for Common
Ground, the Jerusalem YMCA, Kids4Peace and countless other organizations who day
in, day out build long-term bonds and dependence between Palestinians and
Secretary of State Kerry should lead a Peace is Possible Tour
for the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators so they can see firsthand the
transformative bridgebuilding work of these partnerships.
The other arena
where the Israeli and Palestinian P2P programs can become a more effective tool
for the president is for the president to announce support of the establishment
of the International Fund for Israeli Palestinian Peace. The Fund is modeled
after the International Fund for Ireland that was created before the Good Friday
Agreement and helped bring into existence the right conditions for that
The president was reminded of the importance of International
Fund for Ireland during his recent trip to Ireland, where he spoke about the
lasting and transformative effect of the Good Friday Agreement and how integral
the International Fund for Ireland was in holding the Good Friday Agreement in
place, even when there have been hiccups along the way.
Fund for Israeli Palestinian Peace will allow Palestinian and Israeli P2P
programs to expand and become more the normative way that Israelis and
Palestinians interact. Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of
Palestinians and Israelis support peace but are unsure there is someone on the
other side. They need to be strengthened in their convictions by letting them
know they are not alone within their community as well as across the divide.
Hearing more about Israelis and Palestinians who have been changed by meeting
and working with the other and the sincere friendships that have come out of
those encounters will strengthen their resolve.
When a peace agreement is
reached there will be immense, including violent, push-back from those opposed
to an agreement. For that agreement to have any chance to succeed, those who
support peace must be fortified. A key way to achieve that is for President
Obama to make the work of the Palestinian and Israeli P2P efforts more
pronounced in the negotiating track and by supporting the International Fund for
Israeli Palestinian Peace.
It was Hubert H. Humphrey who reminded us,
“Peace is not passive, it is active; peace is not appeasement, it is strength;
peace does not happen, it requires work.”
The Israeli and Palestinian P2P
organizations are doing that work and are an asset the president should use in
his efforts to bring about an Israeli Palestinian peace treaty.
author, a rabbi, is chairman of the Congressional Policy Committee of the
Alliance for Middle East Peace.