What Obama can still do for Israelis and Palestinians

This is a terrible time to hope for short-term diplomatic progress toward a two-state solution.

US President Barack Obama (R) and Defense Secretary Ash Carter meet at the Pentagon (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO / PETE SOUZA)
US President Barack Obama (R) and Defense Secretary Ash Carter meet at the Pentagon
For the US president who launched a peace process on his very first day in office, what can become of Israeli-Palestinian peace in his last year? Very little, according to the conventional wisdom.
But, don’t be misled. Yes, the conflict has deteriorated, and Arabs and Jews are dying in the streets. Yes, public figures are too often fanning the flames. Yes, a lame-duck president may have limited political capital at home and little sway abroad.
This is a terrible time to hope for short-term diplomatic progress toward a two-state solution.
But a time of low expectations and few diplomatic options is actually an ideal moment to make long-term investments in Israeli-Palestinian relations and peace. It is a moment not to miss.
Doing nothing should not be an option. It leaves more Israelis and Palestinians to face the accelerating cycle described by Jedi Master Yoda: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
President Barack Obama and his team are not the first to learn how this cycle of fear and suffering creates an impossible environment for political negotiations, and they are not the first to pass along this problem to the next administration. But, they can be one of the last if they make the most of this year.
After leaving office, past negotiators have looked back with regret that they focused exclusively on top-down peace talks among political leaders, adopting a narrow approach of “the negotiating table or bust.” They realized – too late – that they could and should have done more to build a supportive atmosphere for future talks by encouraging and empowering the people-to-people movements that build trust and confidence.
When Martin Indyk resigned as special envoy, he said, “The difficulties we faced were far more because of the 20 years of distrust that built up than because of the core issues that divide the two sides.” Former Quartet Envoy Tony Blair echoed, “The challenge is not simply about what happens in the elevated heights of the negotiating chamber. The challenge arises from the breakdown of trust. And that is about what happens down in the street, in the daily experience of the people ...It can’t only be negotiated top-down. It has also to be built bottom up.”
Veteran negotiator Dennis Ross concluded that “[p]eople to- people programs that break down barriers between publics need to be promoted.” These “cooperative ventures are necessary...
for making it harder to demonize, and for eroding stereotypes.”
“Yet,” he reflected with a tone of regret, “our investment in these programs in terms of time, money, and effort was far too limited. We focused far too much on the leaders and negotiators and far too little on the publics on each side. To be sure, peace cannot be negotiated from the bottom up in these societies.
But peace will not come only from the top down, either.”
A bottom-up approach is critical, both within the Green Line and across borders.
While Arab-Jewish relations in these two contexts involve some different political and policy challenges, they are closely intertwined and feed off each other, especially now. Mainstream and social media know no borders.
Fear and anger spread quickly to fan the current flames. Mistrust and even hatred prevent reasonable policy solutions.
Most Arabs and Jews have little contact and almost no positive interaction, enabling the worst stereotypes, fears and hatred to spread and tumble into violence.
Despite the horrific current situation, today, there is still a movement of Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews joining together in grassroots, common-sense projects – building shared schools, tourism, hi-tech centers, soccer teams and medical clinics.
Through these efforts, individuals and communities have found a way to create personal relationships and trust – the essential building blocks of political will for coexistence (within Israel) and peace (across borders).
With little hope, money, or attention, these grassroots peacebuilders are still tens of thousands in number and growing. Just imagine what they could be and do with the kind of energy and budgets that we devote to international negotiations or a single F-35.
Now is the moment without excuses. There is no peace process to distract us. There is no doubt about how bad things can get. Now is the moment to invest for tomorrow. In this year of no-chance-for-peace, let’s make the soil fertile for the future. Let’s flood the reasonable majorities with resources and a spotlight. Let’s put extremism in its place by scaling up non-violence and moderation.
In the current administration’s remaining months, let’s make this the mission of everyone with “Israeli-Palestinian peace” in their job descriptions.
Or, give someone that job – and a budget – as would the pending US House bill to create an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.
I hope the Obama team won’t have to look back with regret. If anyone has a chance of learning this lesson before leaving office, it should be the community organizer president, the one who told Israelis and Palestinians that peace begins “not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people.” He reminded them that “political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them.” He said that “[o]rdinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.” For the next year, they could use some extraordinary help.
The writer is the founder of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), the coalition of 85 NGOs building people-to-people cooperation and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. He is also a Washington, DC, lawyer and partner at law firm Jackson Lewis, LLP. The views expressed are his own.