Making the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act a Game Changer in Israeli-Palestinian Civil Society Peacemaking

Dr. Nimrod Goren February 2022
Op-eds / The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

While the stagnation in the official Israeli- Palestinian peace process continues, Israelis and Palestinians working to advance peace on the civil society level are experiencing some new momentum. Increased U.S. funding will be provided over the next years through The Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA), legislated by Congress in late 2020 and providing a possible game-changing moment for pro-peace NGOs.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace NGOs sector, which was at its peak – in terms of scope of activity – during the Oslo process in the 1990s, has been losing ground over the last two decades. The failure to reach a final-status agreement, repeated rounds of escalation, and political leaderships with other priorities and contrasting ideologies have led both the international community and local organizations to take a step back.

Donor fatigue became evident, as foreign governments and major foundations provided less funding to Israeli and Palestinian peace NGOs. This was coupled with a growing public indifference in Israel regarding the Palestinian issue and a rise in Palestinian opposition to interact with Israelis, even for the cause of peace (the anti-normalization movement). The results were fewer joint projects, less interaction, and less understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. Cross-border work was shrinking, and many civil society organizations, which used to bring Israelis and Palestinians together on a regular basis, turned inwards and focused more on working with their domestic constituencies.

Two and three decades ago, the average Israeli student interested in politics and international relations would have had multiple opportunities to participate in dialogue projects with Palestinian counterparts, either locally or abroad. Later in their careers, participants (who were still a small segment of society) would utilize the network and insights gained through such projects to advance positive change. This is not the case anymore, as such opportunities have become rare. Civil society cross-border peacebuilding activities are currently being carried out by relatively few organizations, most of them too small to make a significant impact.

This reality, which according to opinion polls had a negative impact on attitudes of Israelis and Palestinians towards each other and towards prospects of peace, was noticed by the international community. The 2016 Middle East Quartet’s report, which identified obstacles on the way to a two-state solution and devised a set of recommendations on how to overcome them, called to increase “interaction and cooperation in a variety of fields – economic, professional, educational, cultural – that strengthen the foundations for peace and countering extremism.”

However, the report did not lead to tangible actions or to a positive change in the dynamics on the ground. On the contrary. The Trump administration limited U.S. funding for cross-border Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. An opportunity for improvement emerged in December 2020, when Congress passed MEPPA. In the legislation, it was decided that the U.S. will allocate $250 million over a period of five years to promote “economic cooperation, people-to-people peacebuilding programs,” and to advance “shared community building, peaceful coexistence, dialogue and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.”

The legislation, lobbied for by the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) for over a decade as part of a campaign to establish an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, came into force as a new U.S. Administration – once again committed to the two-state solution after four years of Trump – took office. A few months later, in June 2021, another positive development took place. A new Israeli Government was formed, with participation – after many years – of parties that openly support the two-state solution and ministers who actively seek to engage and cooperate with their Palestinian counterparts.

This is not likely to lead to renewed peace negotiations but is positively altering ties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. When ministers and senior officials from both sides meet and interact, as has been happening since mid-2021, ordinary citizens feel a growing legitimacy to do so themselves; the heavy criticism voiced by previous Netanyahu governments towards those working for peace has disappeared from official rhetoric; Israeli peace activists have begun to feel that they have supporters in government who can back them and provide assistance as needed; and regional developments – chief among them the normalization agreements – have made Israeli-Arab cooperation much more widespread.

It is in this context that a potentially game-changing amount of new American funding is entering the scene, providing a unique opportunity to rebuild and restructure the pro-peace community, so it can become more visible, influential, and effective. For this to happen, the new funding should not be distributed to specific projects in a more-of-the-same manner, but should rather be utilized in an innovative, multifaceted and flexible way that will foster a broader structural change in the field. The U.S. Administration should carry out an in-depth strategic planning process on how to best allocate the new resources. This article recommends that such a process should lead to official involvement of Israelis and Palestinians in the implementation of MEPPA (not just as grant recipients), set up diverse funding tracks and priorities, and specify actions to elevate the peacebuilding field (including a broader international commitment to support pro-peace NGOs).

Official Involvement of Israelis and Palestinians

Efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace are too often driven and led by external actors, without enough consultation and involvement of pro-peace Israelis and Palestinians. This limits the effectiveness of such efforts and makes it more difficult for third parties to intervene in a way that addresses local needs, fits realities on the ground, and is in line with political interests, capabilities, and limitations. An effort to bring about structural change in the Israeli-Palestinian civil society peacebuilding sphere requires the involvement of Israelis and Palestinians in the strategic planning, decision making, and implementation processes.

First and foremost, Congress should appoint an Israeli and a Palestinian as members of the MEPPA Advisory Board. The Advisory Board is required by law and will have 13-15 seats, appointed by the USAID administrator and specific congressional leaders. The Advisory Board, which will advise on the types of projects to be funded, is legally open to membership of foreign nationals and could benefit from the inclusion of senior pro-peace Israeli and Palestinian civil society representatives.

In addition, a working group of Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilding experts (who are not related to organizations seeking funds) can be set up by the local USAID mission. This working group can at first conduct a study that maps and assesses the current state of affairs in the peacebuilding field, identifies needs and lacunas, and points out promising and impactful initiatives that are worthy of scaling up. At the later phase, the working group should be invited to advise USAID through involvement in the external reviewing process of applications submitted, the monitoring and evaluating progress of selected initiatives, and the annual updating of funding priorities based on changing realities, best practices, and lessons learned.

Diverse Funding Tracks and Priorities

The nature of MEPPA – providing large amounts in a multiannual framework – enables to go beyond the traditional models of grantmaking. For example, the common projects-based funding model poses a major obstacle to NGOs. While enabling specific activities to take place, it provides only limited resources for the organizational infrastructure that is necessary for effective project implementation. Projects-based funding also limits organizational capacities for long-term planning, human resource development, and flexible adaptations to new opportunities and developments. MEPPA should include a funding track that provides general organizational support to NGOs that excel at their peacebuilding work, address a major need or fill an important niche, and demonstrate high potential for impact if scaled up.

In addition, MEPPA could allocate a certain amount for proactive unsolicited funding – not in response to proposals submitted but as a result of a certain program or organization being identified by the selection committee as especially worthy, or in an attempt to launch a new initiative that answers an existing lacuna in the peacebuilding field. MEPPA should also encourage organizations to apply as a consortium of multiple partners. This will help foster a much-needed culture of cooperation among the propeace NGO community, known for internal rivalries and competition, and will create new synergies that can help overcome limited organizational capacities and lead to a bigger impact.

It could also be beneficial to enable emerging initiatives and small-sized organizations to apply for small-scale funding, in as much a bureaucracy-free manner as possible. This will help ensure that funding is not granted only to the usual recipients of USAID grants, to well-established institutions (which may have a proven track record but are not always the most effective at adapting to changing realities on the ground), or to American entities that are adept at securing big USAID contracts. It will enable funding to also benefit innovative and risk-taking initiatives that might still lack institutional capacity but have the potential to chart new paths of impact.

Funding priorities should also be diversified and not focus only on grassroots activities. Pro-peace policy planning and advancement, as well as track-two dialogue channels, should also be encouraged and supported. Moreover, recent regional developments – between Israel and Arab countries, in the Mediterranean, and between the Middle East and Europe – open a space for multilateral and inter-regional projects (as well as joint funding mechanisms) that also serve the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and in which there is involvement and leadership of Israelis and Palestinians. Such initiatives that innovate the peacebuilding field, are in line with current events, and prove capacity to fulfill new opportunities should be defined as eligible for funding and evaluated positively.

Actions to Elevate the Peacebuilding Field

MEPPA funding can be utilized in a way that benefits civil society peacebuilding as a whole, not only specific organizations or projects. It could provide structural responses to needs and challenges faced by many NGOs working to increase interaction and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.

There is a need to professionalize the peacebuilding field. Many organizations are led or run by volunteers or staff who have the best of intentions but not enough formal expertise and skills. Providing tailormade training sessions and workshops to members of pro-peace Israeli and Palestinian organizations, funded through MEPPA and delivered via USAID and via existing service-providing platforms in the pro-peace ecosystem, can make a genuine impact. Relevant topics can include mediation and facilitation skills, project and financial management, theories of change in conflict resolution, overcoming asymmetries and cultural differences, ways to promote inclusivity in peacemaking, paths to policy impact, and better understanding regional developments and their impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations.

It will also be beneficial to invest in documenting lessons learned by key figures in the Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding ecosystem, so these can help guide a new generation of changemakers. Israeli-Palestinian civil society peacebuilding efforts have been taking place for more than three decades, through ups and downs in the peace process; alas, apart from a few books and memoirs, there is no accumulation of collective knowledge. In addition, a mentoring program could be set up to enable peacebuilders to benefit from MEPPA-funded one-on-one consultations with highly experienced professionals in relevant organizational and content-related fields.

MEPPA could also assist organizations to overcome technical and political difficulties involved in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together by ensuring backing from the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority for its funded programs (for example, to ease issues related to cross-border travel and entry permits), by providing accessible and safe physical spaces for bilateral meetings to take place in, and by assisting organizations that face domestic opposition to their work. MEPPA could also empower its grantees by providing them with international visibility (when this is desired by the grantees), connecting them to each other, and assisting them in formulating international partnerships with peers in the U.S. and beyond.

In conclusion, the increased funding to be allocated over the next years by the U.S. to support Israeli and Palestinian civil society peacebuilding efforts has the potential to be a game changer. It can elevate a field of action that dwindled down over the last two decades, reignite it, and turn it into a catalyst for increased interaction and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, also on the policy and political levels. For this to happen, MEPPA should be carried out in a strategic and innovative manner, which also ensures long-term multilateral funding to civil society peacebuilding. The benefits of doing so will exceed the successful implementation of selected projects. It will also help rebrand the peacebuilding field, strengthen institutional capacities, and possibly encourage additional countries to follow the U.S. and increase support for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. This is well worth the effort.

The op-ed was published in Palestine-Israel Journal in February 2022.

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