Investing in a better future for Israelis and Palestinians - opinion

Peace is not the final destination. It is a means and not an end. Peace does not erase all concerns. Instead, it creates a shared stage to address issues.

 USAID’S MEPPA activity, Making Peace, brings together Israeli and Palestinian engineers to build wheelchairs for youth. (photo credit: Reut)
USAID’S MEPPA activity, Making Peace, brings together Israeli and Palestinian engineers to build wheelchairs for youth.
(photo credit: Reut)

Near the end of the Trump administration, Congress passed the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA), named after Democratic New York Congresswoman Lowey as she finished her 32-year congressional career. MEPPA authorized up to $250 million over five years.

The agenda of this multi-pronged investment: To promote economic cooperation and people-to-people programs; advance shared community building; and dialogue and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Created through strong bipartisan efforts – a rarity for the 116th Congress – it is one of the most significant and innovative pieces of legislation created by Congress to address the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. As large as $250 million is, however, it’s not enough.

History teaches us that the International Fund for Ireland spent $40 per person in Northern Ireland on MEPPA-type projects. That larger expenditure was critical to paving the way for the Good Friday Accords 25 years ago, which ended “the troubles” between Protestants and Catholics.

At present, only $2 per person is spent between Palestinian-Israeli enterprises. The international community needs to come together and coordinate vast increases in the support of these economic and people-to-people programs.

Within the MEPPA legislation, Congress appointed a Partnership for Peace Fund Advisory Board. Senator Patrick Leahy assigned me to that Board based on my involvement with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura since its doors opened in 1996. The Institute includes Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, Moroccan, American, and other college-aged students from around the world, and numerous transboundary research centers, as well as our Center for Applied Environmental Diplomacy.

A short while ago, a number of MEPPA Board members visited first-year MEPPA grantees in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Nablus. Over three days, we experienced a universe of Palestinian-Israeli collaboration, self-described as “statements of defiance, and friendships as radical action.”

The goal of MEPPA is to bring these societies to a tipping point, where they can see one another through a prism resulting from these, and like-minded initiatives and attitudes. These dynamic enterprises support women entrepreneurs, leverage business networks to expand trade, address water scarcity and climate change, advance cooperation between medical professionals, and strengthen youth engagement for the region’s burgeoning tech industry start-ups.

All these projects produce effective, measurable results that shape strong, respectful relationships between Israelis and Palestinians.

WITH THESE positive results, why is there not a greater impact on Palestinians and Israelis? – the answer is the asymmetry of the sensational. In his poem “The Diameter of the Bomb,” the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai explores the far reach of an individual act of violence expanding from its “thirty centimeters” to “distant shores.”

The multiplier effect of violence and extremist language far outweighs the positive effects of MEPPA programs, as well as the work of more than 170 Israeli and Palestinian institutions of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP). Fanatics need to do less to have greater impact.

Why is the asymmetry of the sensational so effective? A part of our brain responds to trauma with fear, fight, and flight responses, with higher levels of cortisol, our stress hormone, running throughout our bodies. This makes it harder to control emotions and utilize cognitive thinking, rendering us less likely to think rationally about the consequences of our thoughts and actions.

Extremist violence and voices play into and feed off that fear, creating a deadly spiral. That fear is real and should not be explained away. It also leads to negative misperceptions. It is easy, therefore, to see why there is so much distrust between Palestinians and Israelis.

In this conflict, symptoms are confused for the cause. The ongoing violence, which has filled a political vacuum, is regarded as the cause and not a symptom. The cause is the occupation, as well as limited diplomatic thinking combined with neither side sending clear messages to build trust.

Violence, fear, and hate become a closed loop, harder to curtail with each passing day. Just as we must address the violence, if we are to ever make progress toward a more peaceful resolution, so, too, we must aggressively address the causes of the deadly stalemate.

At the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, Nadav Tamir, senior adviser for international and governmental relations, reminded us of another facet holding back both parties. He told us, “perfection freezes people,” echoing what Sari Nusseibeh, political activist, professor of philosophy and former president of the Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, had shared with me.

Nusseibeh said one of the reasons the Oslo Peace Process failed was high expectations combined with a lack of synchronicity of each side’s goals (security and independence), creating mistrust. He continued, “Trust under such conditions eventually has to do with the negotiators themselves – how they ‘read’ each other. There seems to have been synchronicity in Oslo in this regard but as further steps were taken and the circle of actors expanded, cracks appeared and inevitably began to expand.”

Nusseibeh said that political figure Faisal Husseini had advised the Palestinians to settle for “a relative or a partial justice.” While at the same time, a more realistic goal for the Israelis would be an imperfect peace.

Elaborating on "imperfect peace" between Israelis and Palestinians

WHAT DO I mean by that? Israelis and Palestinians need to grasp that peace is not the final destination. It is a means and not an end. Peace does not erase all concerns. Instead, it creates a shared stage to address issues.

The Good Friday Accords did not expunge all discord in Northern Ireland, but it did take violence, death, and extremism out of the equation so that a healthier reality could emerge. Unlike in Northern Ireland a quarter of a century ago, better and more sophisticated use of social media to expose Israelis and Palestinians to a different face of the other is critical.

In the asymmetry of the sensational, one violent act or extremist statement quickly travels far and wide, making it harder for quieter, transformative, positive acts to traverse the World Wide Web, as well as receive coverage by mainstream media. We need to reverse the asymmetry and amplify their message.

An essential step in that direction, is the trust built between Palestinians and Israelis in their engagement with each other through the programs of MEPPA and ALLMEP. David Lehrer, the former executive director of the Arava Institute makes that point. While talking about the Arava Institute, he speaks for all related programs between Palestinians and Israelis: “Water is not the scarcest resource in the Middle East, trust is.”

When we trust someone, differences may remain, but that trust creates the will to work together to overcome those gaps. Those reframing efforts need our fullest support to reach the long overdue inflection point and architecture of new relationships and perceptions, as well as expand political imagination. They are fundamental to generating the conditions for Israelis and Palestinians to have the better future they deserve.

We should reinforce and lift up the work of those Israelis and Palestinians who offer a different model – we need to maximize their impact. Fortifying these ventures will strengthen those voices of accord to reclaim the conversation and diminish those who only sow force and fear.

The challenge to the 118th Congress and like-minded donor countries is to come together and coordinate efforts to make the impact of MEPPA-type programs more robust. This is imperative if the international community is going to be serious in working to diminish the violence, death, and extremism so those voices and actions of reconciliation can be heard and experienced.

By doing so the fundamental conditions will be generated for Israelis and Palestinians to have a real chance at the better future they all deserve.

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.