'You didn't need to agree on where the border needed to be'

Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilders prepare for $250m US government injection

The Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, passed by US Congress in December, provides seed funding over five years to boost reconciliation initiatives

Israeli Jews and Palestinians talk to each other, during a weekly meeting organized by Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian from the West Bank, on July 22, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Israeli Jews and Palestinians talk to each other, during a weekly meeting organized by Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian from the West Bank, on July 22, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

With the recent US Congress passage of the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilding organizations are eager to find out what, exactly, $250 million of funding can do.

The money was approved at the end of December 2020 as part of a $2.3 trillion spending package that combined government funding with coronavirus pandemic relief, and was signed into law by then-US president Donald Trump a few days before the new year.

The act, named for the now-retired Democratic congresswoman who spearheaded the bipartisan initiative, will see the US government fund peacebuilding and reconciliation initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians over a five-year period.

The Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), a network of some 130 peacebuilding nonprofits and shared society groups working with Israelis and Palestinians, led the lobbying effort for the funding. Behind ALLMEP was a coalition of organizations, such as AIPAC, J Street, American Jewish Committee and New Israeli Fund.

Rep. Nita Lowey (Democrat-New York) (screen capture: YouTube/nitalowey)

A significant allocation

The legislation is the result of years of advocacy by ALLMEP toward creating an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, modeled after the International Fund for Ireland, which is an independent organization founded in 1986 by the British and Irish governments, and funded in part by the US, to promote dialogue throughout a fractured Ireland.

John Lyndon, executive director for ALLMEP, said the funding is significant not just because of the display of bipartisanship from Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Washington, or the amount of effort and collaboration within different organizations, but also because it was a chance to strengthen and support peacebuilding, reconciliation and dialogue initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians that could last years or decades.

He said the current physical separation between Israelis and Palestinians can lead to stereotypes and dehumanization, which makes this funding all the more important as a way to invest in initiatives that will break down barriers and build relationships.

John Lyndon, executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP)

“Hard-wired ideas about identity or enmity with your neighbors, you can’t fix them quickly — it needs to be a sustained, real engagement,” Lyndon said. “It requires deep engagement and taking seriously people’s identity, and their red lines — and to understand why people are saying what they’re saying.”

Joel Braunold, managing director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and former head of ALLMEP, said this type of economic policy is crucial for any successful peacebuilding strategy.

“As we look at peacebuilding in Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s extremely clear that a civil society strategy and a bottom-up economic policy is not an afterthought but a necessary component of any successful strategy. I think that’s one of the key learnings that we’re bringing into this, as well as trying to push for a more inclusive approach,” Braunold said. “The utility of the fund is not just about strengthening those who have always been in the peace camp, but really trying to find different ways to engage greater and wider avenues of civil society, as well.”

Lyndon said now that the bill had become law it was time to raise the capacity of the peacebuilding field to receive the funding, which would be in 2022 at the earliest.

Preparing the field

Enter Amal-Tikva, an initiative founded in September 2019 with the purpose of fostering peace between Israelis and Palestinians by bringing together philanthropists, field experts, organizations and activists to build capacity in the peacebuilding field and seek funding opportunities.

Amal-Tikva (the name means hope, in Arabic and Hebrew) also offers guidance on organizational growth, impact and sustainability, with the hope of creating an environment where civil society organizations can work strategically and collaboratively for peace.

Meredith Rothbart, co-founder and CEO of Amal-Tikva (Courtesy)

“The goal is to inspire hope inside Israeli-Palestinian society that peace is possible, to get people to desire it, to dream for it, to want it — to feel that it’s a reality,” said Meredith Rothbart, the organization’s co-founder and CEO. “Because without that, it’s impossible.”

With the passage of the funding act by Congress, Amal-Tikva is helping to prepare the field for when the money becomes available by helping organizations strengthen their capacity, professionalize and eventually receive the cash.

To do so, it runs a program called Fieldbuilding 360, a three-month virtual program that supports strategically chosen cohorts of peacebuilding organizations. The first cohort ended recently and Rothbart said she hopes to run two more this year.

During Fieldbuilding 360, organizations are able to connect, collaborate, share experiences and support each other. The organization’s leaders also go through weekly individual strategic meetings with Amal-Tikva.

“We have to do everything we can to get organized and structured, and strategic, and coordinated to make sure that we did everything possible” to get the much needed funds, Rothbart said.

She said to think of Fieldbuilding 360 as a startup accelerator, but for nonprofits. One such program being prepped by Amal-Tikva is Tech2Peace, a program that combines technology and entrepreneurship training, social activities and conflict dialogue to build a community for Israelis and Palestinians to not only engage in peacebuilding dialogue but also to foster collaborations in the region’s tech sector.

Funding at a critical moment

The US funding approval also could not have come at a more critical time. An April 2020 research report by Amal-Tikva assessing the needs of Israeli and Palestinian civil society organizations highlighted weaknesses, including underfunding and understaffing.

Joel Braunold, managing director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and former head of ALLMEP (Courtesy)

Among the findings, the report stated that leadership needs support and peacebuilding programs don’t have large numbers of participants.

There is now hope that the funding will help these organizations expand, to support dialogue rooted in understanding and reconciliation.

Because funding for Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding initiatives was cut in 2018 by the Trump administration, ALLMEP’s Lyndon said he wants organizations to be ambitious with the influx of funding and pursue opportunities they couldn’t approach previously.

“You didn’t need to agree on where the border needed to be — or even if two states versus one state versus a confederation,” Lyndon said. “So long as you prioritized the need for Israelis and Palestinians to really know each other and to have the relationships, the programs, the momentum necessary to build a peace process.”

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