Trump cuts to coexistence efforts will cause ‘long-term damage,’ NGO head warns

Trump cuts to coexistence efforts will cause ‘long-term damage,’ NGO head warns

With Israeli-Palestinian mistrust growing, Joel Braunold of Alliance for Middle East Peace says slashed funds make it ever harder to ‘humanize populations’ to each other

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Participants of the Teachers' Lounge coexistence project at the home of an Arab participant in East Jerusalem. (Courtesy: Eyal Tagar)
Participants of the Teachers' Lounge coexistence project at the home of an Arab participant in East Jerusalem. (Courtesy: Eyal Tagar)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s decision to cut all US aid to programs that bring Israelis and Palestinians together will cause “long-term damage” to peace efforts, the director of the NGO that coalesces such programs told The Times of Israel.

The White House’s decision to withdraw assistance to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence programs last month came amid American moves to punish Palestinians for their refusal to engage with Trump officials since US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December.

The US government has traditionally been the largest supporter of peace and reconciliation programs in Israel and the Palestinian territories. It had annually provided $10 million for such programs through USAID, which constitutes a quarter of the total funds for the efforts.

“The bigger issue is the long-term damage,” said Joel Braunold, the executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations that seeks US support for the activities.

Joel Braunold is a graduate student at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. (photo credit: Courtesy Joel Braunold)
Joel Braunold (Courtesy)

“By doing it this way and damaging the portfolio, you deeply damage the integrity of the program on the ground. You’re basically telling Congress that you’re not really fulfilling the mandate, which is to support Israelis and Palestinians,” Braunold said in an interview.

The Alliance for Middle East Peace is a coalition of more than 100 nongovernmental organizations that work to promote peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. The alliance secures funding for the NGO programs and decides how much each group needs to fulfill its trust-building activities.

Citing polls that show Israelis and Palestinians increasingly believing that peace between the sides is not possible, Braunold said the administration’s policies were further entrenching that mindset into young Israelis and Palestinians.

“We see that the younger you get, the more antagonistic and further mistrustful you are of the other,” he said. “So into this moment, when we know that the young generation is so skeptical about peace, doesn’t believe that peace is possible, you cut off the very programs that humanize the populations to each other. Under what reality does that make sense?”

All US funding will end for fiscal 2019. For the current fiscal year, the US will only disburse the remaining part of its annual $10 million to coexistence groups working with Jewish and Arab Israelis, like the Abraham Fund or Hand in Hand.

Other groups, like Interfaith Encounter Association, which attempt to foster dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, won’t receive any more American assistance.

That means groups that convene Israelis and Palestinians, including for soccer games, farm work and reconciliation projects, will lose up to $3.5 million in funding, Braunold said

After the cuts were first reported by The New York Times, USAID said it would still support programs that bring together Israeli Jews and Arabs, but that it is “currently unable to engage Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as a result of the administration’s recent decision on Palestinian assistance.”

Because groups in the West Bank and Gaza will not be receiving funding, the overall endeavor is diminished, Braunold said.

“Groups across the border building relationships between Israelis and Palestinians will not be receiving assistance this year,” he said. “So you’re only going to have a portion of the portfolio move forward.”

US President Donald Trump waves on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington DC on September 27, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS)

Braunold is now seeking out funds from private donations and other governments in Europe and elsewhere.

The American cuts to coexistence programs were imposed amid a host of broader cuts to the Palestinian Authority, East Jerusalem hospitals, and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). These moves have been announced as the White House plans to unveil its long-awaited peace plan in the near future.

US President Donald Trump said last week that his proposal would be released in the next two-to-four months. He also said, for the first time, that he favored a two-state solution to the conflict.

When Washington announced it was slashing aid to the coexistence programs in September, Trump’s envoy to Middle East peace, Jason Greenblatt, said he continued to “believe in the importance of building relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly kids.”

US President Donald Trump’s Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt addresses the American Jewish Committee’s Women’s Leadership Board Spring Luncheon in New York on April 24, 2018. (Courtesy / Ellen Dubin Photography)

“But both Palestinian and Israeli kids will lose, and these programs will be meaningless, if the PA continues to condemn a plan they haven’t seen & refuses to engage on it,” he tweeted.

Braunold fiercely criticized the logic behind that statement.

“[Greenblatt] essentially says, ‘I support these programs, but …’ What’s the but? I don’t understand. If you support these programs, fund them.”

The notion that by stopping coexistence programs, you’re going to bring the PA to heel, to listen to the administration, is absurd,” he continued. “It’s patently absurd. No one credibly can make that argument. And it undercuts your very argument that you need to prepare the population.”

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