Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, drawing on his experience negotiating the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and trying for an accord between Israelis and Palestinians, said ending violent conflict requires two critical components: committed political leadership and grassroots efforts that build bridges between peoples. Neither approach can work by itself, Mitchell said in a recent discussion that explored whether a type of fund used to promote reconciliation in Northern Ireland’s peace process could be applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

David Broza, an Israeli singer-songwriter, leads a workshop with Palestinian boys in the Shuafat neighborhood of East Jerusalem, Jan. 3, 2014. Broza visits here regularly as part of a personal effort to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Of his outlook on the peace process, Broza has said “There has to be a generation that will plant the seeds, and there will be those that will sit in the shade, and those that will eat the fruit.”
David Broza, an Israeli singer-songwriter, leads a workshop with Palestinian boys in the Shuafat neighborhood of East Jerusalem, as part of a personal effort to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Photo Courtesy of the New York Times/Rina Castelnuovo

“By itself, the Good Friday Agreement did not guarantee peace, stability and reconciliation,” Mitchell said in the March 13 discussion co-hosted by the Embassy of Ireland. “It made them all possible.” 

The surface similarities between the conflicts are obvious, Mitchell said. Both are disputes over religion, national identity and territory. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he plunged into as a special envoy for President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2011, is far more complex, he said, because the conflicting parties live in the world’s most turbulent region. The overlapping and intersecting conflicts and alliances “sometimes make it hard to even understand what’s going on, much less to prescribe a solution,” Mitchell said.

Nonetheless, amid a stalled political and diplomatic process to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is particularly important that governments, organizations and individuals maintain communication to keep the hope of peace alive, he said. The International Fund for Ireland (IFI), an independent organization founded by the British and Irish governments 12 years before the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement he mediated, played such a role for Northern Ireland, Mitchell said.

While scores of non-governmental organizations in peacebuilding have been working over two decades to build cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, they have done so without a broad model for steady funding and coordination like the IFI. Panelists broadly agreed increased and consistent funding could heighten the impact of Israeli and Palestinian grassroots peacebuilding. Still, speakers noted the limitations posed by stalled diplomacy and political leadership unwilling to take risks for peace.

By itself, the Good Friday Agreement did not guarantee peace, stability and reconciliation, it made them all possible.

Senator George Mitchell

The IFI has worked since 1986 to help heal Northern Ireland and bordering areas of the Republic of Ireland during and after four decades of sectarian violence. Over more than 30 years, it has received about 904 million Euros, or about $975 million, from the U.S., the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, according to its website. The fund promotes economic and community development, as well as dialogue and reconciliation across sectarian lines.

Two Prongs of Jobs and Reconciliation

The fund’s chairman, Adrian Johnston, said the fund has created 55,000 jobs in supporting 6,000 projects to benefit the most disadvantaged communities—those most prone to sectarian violence—and 75 percent proved sustainable.

After the 1998 agreement, the fund focused more intensely on reconciliation and dialogue, he said. One of the fund’s key advantages in working for peace is that it’s not identified with any party or side in the conflict.

“The fund can go into areas opposed to the agreement,” Johnston said. “It can open new pathways for communities to reconnect.”

Yet those pathways can be long and complex, and diagnosing where Northern Ireland’s society is today, two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement, yields a mixed picture, according to Professor Brandon Hamber, the director of the International Conflict Research Institute at Ulster University.  While there are high levels of political cooperation, several underlying issues persist, including economic division and social tensions. 

Over time, the sense of a shared vision for Northern Ireland has decreased since the early days of the agreement, according to Hamber’s research.  And while studies have shown a steady increase in the building of positive relationships and cultural and attitudinal change—areas of focus for the fund—the improvement has been slow, only 1 to 2 percentage points a year.

It is precisely because peacebuilding is a long-term proposition that some kind of scaled-up and sustained funding model could add value in the Israeli-Palestinian context, said Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Arab-Israeli conflict program at USIP.  Findings from a recent USIP evaluation of the institute’s dialogue grants projects show that a strong factor in strengthening impact over time is consistency in funding that can enable organizations to build on early successes and take risks to encourage innovation, she said.  A more detailed report of the study is forthcoming.

Types of Work That Receive Funding

In the Israeli-Palestinian context, innovation and risk also should apply to the types of work being funded, Kurtzer-Ellenbogen said.  Growing social and political challenges to Israeli and Palestinian interaction have caused civil society organizations to “turn inwards” and focus on healing divides within their own societies. These are equally important projects for any new funding mechanism, Kurtzer-Ellenbogen said.

The fund’s independence in a fraught political context is a key benefit, said Joel Braunold, the executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace and an advocate for an international fund for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While international financing of NGOs is politically volatile in the Middle East, an independent and inclusive fund could gain legitimacy, via financing and political support from parties each side trusts, Braunold said. 

Father Josh Thomas, executive director of Kids4Peace, an interfaith youth movement working with Israelis and Palestinians, said it’s important to build a sense of hope in the face of so much despair, cynicism and negativity. His organization is part of Braunold’s coalition of 110 groups working on the ground to build relationships between Arabs and Jews.  

But the challenging social and political environment makes it difficult for even motivated young people to affect broader social change. Arguing for scaled-up investment, Thomas cited one of his Palestinian teenage participants. When asked what it would take to feel more confident and strong in his work as a young person pursuing a nonviolent path to peace, the youth simply replied “more people.”

Despite a common perception that grassroots peacebuilding has long been a large-scale funding priority in efforts to resolve the Israeli Palestinian conflict, Braunold said civil society was an afterthought of the first Oslo Accords of 1993, and peace and reconciliation didn’t feature at all.

EU funding for civil society groups began only in 1998, and the U.S. contribution of $10 million a year didn’t begin until 2004, after the second intifada, Braunold said. Today, civil society is “no longer an afterthought,” he said, citing explicit recognition in a July 2016 document from the Quartet of U.S., Russia, the EU and the United Nations that mediates the peace process.

“We are a necessary part of the solution,” Braunold said. “If we are seen as just ‘nice,’ we are destined to repeat the same mistakes that have caused the failures of the past.”

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