As US President Donald Trump’s emissaries continue their journeys through the Middle East searching for a way to break the current stalemate in the Israeli- Palestinian peace process, many in the international community actually identify potential for progress elsewhere.
This potential lies not among leaders, but rather the citizens; not in the midst of governments, but within organizations and institutes.
The accepted assumption that the present Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are neither able nor willing to provide the political goods necessary to reach a breakthrough leads to a renewed emphasis on the role that civil society can play to advance Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution.
Recent international documents repeatedly highlight the need to encourage joint Israeli-Palestinian activities, for example: the report of the Middle East Quartet (summer 2016), the concluding declaration of the Paris Peace Summit in 2017, and the European Parliament’s May 2017 resolution regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
In a conference organized by the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament which took place in June 2017, various speakers claimed that today the optimal way for the EU to invest in advancing peace between Israelis and Palestinians is by supporting those organizations which strive for this aim on a daily basis. The role of civil society in advancing peace stands also at the heart of a working group led by the Swedish government, which was active in the framework of the French Peace Initiative; its findings were recently presented in Jerusalem at a joint event of the Mitvim Institute, the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) and the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP).
The importance attributed to the activities of pro-peace organizations is evidenced also by parliamentary processes in various countries which seek to increase the international financial support available to these organizations, for example the recent decision by the UK Parliament to accord $4.1 million to projects where Israelis and Palestinians work together, and the US resolution to avoid reducing the budget for such projects, despite comprehensive cuts in the State Department.
The fact that civil society is coming back to the forefront is a welcome one. This is happening following some years of disappointment, fatigue and despair regarding the work of pro-peace organizations, due to their limited impact over the past two decades. However, in the past few years the civil society arena has changed. While in the past pro-peace organizations were mainly engaged in facilitating dialogue and promoting mutual understanding on the grassroots level, today exist more bodies of a different kind, organizations which can fundamentally influence the policy and political arenas. Think tanks have become more common and effective, and a number of NGOs working on the grassroots level are adopting more policy and politically-oriented modes of conduct.
The increased policy impact of civil society organizations is evident from their activities in the Knesset, their engagement with the diplomatic community and their cooperation with regional and international think tanks and NGOs. While doing so they introduce fresh ideas into the public discourse; advance new pro-peace paradigms; offer policy advice on process- and content-related issues; support international initiatives to advance peace; carry out back-channels of private diplomacy with regional actors; provide analysis and recommendations regarding regional developments; appear at parliamentary committees and other public forums; expand and deepen the knowledge of politicians on issues related to the peace process; and motivate them to take action.
Achieving policy impact requires financial resources that ensure organizational stability and enable long-term planning as well as sustainable programming rather than one-time projects. However, it also necessitates a change in mindset and a range of professional capacities which differ from those generally common among NGOs working on the grassroots level. In this context, think tanks play a role of the utmost importance. They bridge between the grassroots and political levels, as well as between academic knowledge and policy planning. They can share their knowledge, tools, and experience in the policy world with those grassroots NGO that seek to widen their circle of influence. Policy work and grassroots activism do not contradict each other; rather both are important and each offers a unique contribution.
Both policy and grassroots pro-peace activism should take place, as far as possible, in cross-border cooperation with Palestinians and with an increased involvement of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are currently absent from the Israeli peace camp. In light of the mounting difficulties involved in Israeli-Palestinian cooperation – physical barriers, the anti-normalization movement, suspicion and indifference – many NGOs focus on activism within their own society. While internal activity is important and vital in generating a base of support for peace and advancing a leadership which desires it, cross-border cooperation is fundamental in reducing the increasing distance between the two sides, strengthening mutual trust, and devising policy proposals that reflect the needs of both sides. This is at once possible and effective, even in periods of tension and crisis, as has been proven by the comprehensive research recently published by ALLMEP research director Dr. Ned Lazarus.
This also has political importance. The present-day Knesset includes politicians who took part in the past in joint Israeli-Palestinian civil society activities. This has exerted a positive influence on their parliamentary activities to advance peace. Today’s young generation lacks opportunities to get to know its Palestinian neighbors on both the personal and policy levels; this is liable to rank the Palestinian issue even lower on future leaders’ priority lists.
Official diplomatic efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace are imperative and essential, especially in the light of increasing skepticism and indifference regarding the peace process. Civil society cannot deliver peace on its own. But, the policy upgrade of the Israeli peace camp is an asset for envoys and negotiators leading official efforts.
Think tanks and NGOs are carving a new role in support of peace, and can increasingly assist in generating new knowledge, articulating innovative ideas, and supporting policy planning processes. This potential should be identified, utilized and supported by the international community, as it puts a renewed focus on the role of civil society in advancing peace.