The Middle East earthquake no one noticed - opinion

There are over 150 Palestinian and Israeli NGOs modeling a different status quo, unfortunately not enough Israelis and Palestinians know about them.

 THEN-FOREIGN MINISTER Shlomo Ben-Ami (left) speaks at a joint press briefing with senior Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Korei, after a week of intensive negotiations in Taba, January 2001. (photo credit: REUTERS)
THEN-FOREIGN MINISTER Shlomo Ben-Ami (left) speaks at a joint press briefing with senior Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Korei, after a week of intensive negotiations in Taba, January 2001.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

My junior high school years in Ewing, New Jersey ended, in the early 1970s, with race riots. In response, a few years later, a local reporter contacted me who wanted to write an article on race relations in the community. I told him I would gather a group of white and African-American students.

Before I knew it, the administration and teachers at Ewing High School made it very clear, in their eyes, I was playing with fire and I should cancel the meeting. Instead, my parents invited the students and reporter to our house. The conversation in our living room showed while we were in classes and extracurricular activities together – at the end of the day we went home to our segregated neighborhoods.

A few days later, I called the reporter inquiring when the article would be published. He told me without confrontation and violence there was no story. So I learned, while a teenager, firsthand the adage about journalism – if it bleeds it leads – otherwise mostly silence.

A quarter of a century later I was teaching Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, and international students at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura. At the end of January 2001, about 50 km. south of Ketura in Taba, Egypt Palestinian and Israeli negotiators came very close to an agreement. With negotiations taking place, I thought it would make a good story for the media covering the negotiations since we at the Arava Institute were modeling what the negotiators were trying to achieve. Collecting materials in Hebrew, Arabic, and English I headed to the border.

The Israeli guards were suspicious but let me cross, while the Egyptians put me in a room with an armed guard outside the door. Calls were made to Cairo by the Egyptian authorities and I was eventually allowed to continue. At the Taba resort I made my pitch to the world’s media. Their reaction – there is hard news and soft news, and our work was soft news so not high on their priority.

Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made history by becoming the first United States Secretary of State to meet with Israeli and Palestinian NGOs. In days filled with very important high-level discussions about Iran and Ukraine including the other historic meeting at Sde Boker with the Israeli, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Moroccan foreign ministers, Blinken found time to meet those NGOs. In doing so, he sent a calculated and powerful message about the role of Palestinian and Israeli NGOs.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken give a press statement after their meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on Sunday. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken give a press statement after their meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on Sunday. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

This followed the passage of the Nita Lowey Middle East Peace Partners Act (MEPPA) by Congress providing $50 million over each of the next five years for the activities of these NGOs. Despite the significance and importance of Blinken’s words, both in context and message, they were covered by only two news outlets worldwide.

John Lyndon of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) makes the point, “One of the things we look at, as a case study, is what was done in Northern Ireland by the creation of something called the International Fund for Ireland in 1986 (which was essential for the Good Friday Accords to be signed), which directly invested and leveraged over $2.4 billion. That’s over $40 per person, per year, for over 20 years. In Israel/Palestine it’s around $2 per person, per year.” MEPPA is a strategic attempt by the US government to rectify that.

While it appears final status negotiations are not on the table at present what can be done now is to do the best to ensure that once an agreement is reached it has the best chance of holding. This is where MEPPA, and related, highlighting the work of the Israeli-Palestinian People2People (P2P) NGOs comes into play for they till the soil for an agreement by providing tangible models on the ground for Palestinians and Israelis. The naysayers have taken over the conversation; there needs to be an alternative narrative for Israelis and Palestinians to grasp.

In addition, they strengthen the voices of Palestinians and Israelis who believe that a compromise of peace and justice will give Israeli and Palestinian leaders the backbone for the hard decisions they will need to make. Finally, there will be tremendous pushback by both Israeli and Palestinian extremists to any agreement – giving resolve to those Israelis and Palestinians who will support an agreement will strengthen against that pushback so an agreement has a better chance to hold.

Related to this, Secretary of State Blinken said when awarding a MEPPA grant to EcoPeace, “So in this way and so many other ways, through practical cooperation, bringing people together, it builds habits of cooperation and breaks down barriers in ways that ultimately, I think, will help set the foundation for what we continue to believe is the necessary and important future of two states.”

In Hebrew, the word for truth is emet, composed of more or less the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet because truth should be all encompassing. Sheker is Hebrew for lie, formed by three letters next to each other, for a lie only gives part of the picture. When the media only focuses on the violent and dramatic, it shows only a piece of the whole – a lie. Not to diminish the impact of the brutal actions, but they are not the totality of human actions. The recent violence between Israelis and Palestinians once again has grabbed the headlines. By doing so, it pushes aside and suffocates the critical and transformative work of Israeli and Palestinian NGOs. When only the violence is reported, it creates a perceived reality that all is hopeless – it creates a momentum downward and becomes a self-fulfilling hopeless prophecy.

For over twenty years the Arava Institute has brought our Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli alumni to the Hill. At those meetings, members of Congress and their staff are amazed and shocked by what they see: the deep respect and care between our alumni. Why? Because they are influenced by what they learn from the media. That is even truer for Palestinians and Israelis.

There are over 150 Palestinian and Israeli NGOs modelling a different status quo, unfortunately not enough Israelis and Palestinians know about them. Their work is not soft - it is hard and difficult, and makes a difference and is impactful. In the words of Hubert H. Humphrey, “Peace is not passive, it is active. Peace is not appeasement, it is strength. Peace does not 'happen,' it requires work.”  The diameter and damage of a bomb is amplified by the coverage it receives by the press. It should well receive its coverage, but at the same time it is long overdue for the voices and efforts of a different relationship between Israelis and Palestinians to be given their due.

The writer is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont, and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College. He was recently appointed to the Partnership for Peace Fund Advisory Board of MEPPA by Senator Patrick Leahy.