A New Era for Peacebuilding: How new ideas and resources will reshape the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace
John Lyndon, Executive Director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), the largest network of peacebuilding NGOs in Israel/Palestine. He brings with him over a decade of experience leading NGOs concerned with conflict resolution and international development, with a particular focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the pivotal role civil society can play in any lasting resolution.
Huda Abuarquob, ALLMEP’s First-Ever on-the-ground Regional Director, has been an active leader in grassroots Palestinian and Israeli initiatives focused on Feminist Inclusive Political Activism (FIPA) and track two diplomacy. Previously, Abuarquob worked as a teacher, trainer, and consultant for the Palestinian Ministry of Education. Born in Jerusalem, Abuarquob, who is the oldest of twelve children, lived in the U.S. for eight years, and now resides in Dura — Hebron.
Meredith Rothbart, Co-Founder and CEO of Amal Tikva brings over a decade of experience with Israeli and Palestinian NGOs. In 2019 she co-founded Amal-Tikva, a collaborative initiative where philanthropists, field experts, and organizations come together to support civil society peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians. Meredith holds an MA from Hebrew University in Community Development. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children.
Online International Forum
Jonathan Kessler: I want to begin by asking you, John, why are you so involved in the search for peace and justice in the Middle East? As far as I know, that’s not where you were born, that’s not where most of your family resides, neither in Israel nor Palestine. But you do bring to this cause an enormous amount of experience far from the Middle East. So, John, help us understand your background, introduce the two activists you’ve asked to join in this conversation, tell us a bit about your remarkable organization ALLMEP, and why we’re all so excited about the legacy legislation that former Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) bequeathed the region.
John Lyndon: Thank you Jonathan, and thanks everybody for joining. I’m from Ireland and it’s interesting to note, on the 28th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, that I am the net beneficiary of a very successful peace process in Northern Ireland, which happened at around the same time as Oslo. The Good Friday Agreement, which came about in 1998, was preceded by 12 years of very intense incremental peacebuilding work to create conditions that allowed conflict resolution to come ripe. One of the reasons things were so successful in Northern Ireland was something called the International Fund for Ireland.
This was a huge, ambitious institution which amassed well over 2 billion dollars and leveraged investments into peacebuilding on the island of Ireland. Now to put that into comparison, the Israeli-Palestinian space really only started investing in peacebuilding work after Oslo — in fact after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. And we never did it at that same sort of scale. It was around 40 dollars, per person, per year for twenty years in Northern Ireland. And it’s under 2 dollars per person, per year, for Israelis and Palestinians. The International Fund for Ireland was what Jonathan Powell, the chief negotiator for Tony Blair, called the “great unsung hero of the peace process.” What you saw was this mushrooming of ideas, of people, of energies, that managed to break some of the gaps that we know are so critical for conflict resolution — but also create some of the ideas and the policy architecture that inform the good fight.
So as Jonathan mentioned, I’m the executive director of ALLMEP: Alliance for Middle-East Peace. We’re the largest network of peacebuilding NGOs working amongst Israelis and Palestinians — both inside Israel, for a more just and equitable relationship between Jewish and Arab citizens, and then also across borders — between Israelis and Palestinians. We have over 150 members. Huda Abuarquob, our regional director, is joining us on the call today as well.
We saw game-changing legislation enacted in the final days of last year — called the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act named for former Chairwoman Nita Lowey who was chair of the appropriations committee and really helped to drive this legislation — and help to get the kind of bipartisan support that we know is so difficult to come by but is integral and necessary for anything that really moves the needle on this issue and many others. We will now see 250 million dollars over the next five years being invested in civic and economic tools and programs that can create the conditions that we know are necessary for conflict resolution.
Ten days ago, the first call for the Lowey Fund was published. The 15-million-dollar public call for peacebuilding organizations with a maximum size of 5 million dollars — we’ve never seen this before. This is the single biggest funding line in the history of Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding.
Among the tragedies of the last couple of decades is that ideas are being cooked up in silos on either side of the Green Line, but ultimately peace isn’t a function of what you can pass in the Knesset, or what the Palestinian legislature can agree to — it has to be a function of what Israelis and Palestinians can agree to. We hope that this funding can help create an engine room for these sorts of ideas, and also for activists who can emerge from these rooms and who can incentivize their political leaders to adopt some of those norms. And if they don’t adopt them, perhaps replace them. We can see maybe a new generation of Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilders, over time, move into positions of critical leadership.
We’re lucky to be joined today by both Meredith Rothbart and Huda Abuarquob as well. Meredith is the co-founder and CEO of a partner of ours called Amal-Tikva. Now I’ll let Meredith explain the work in a bit more detail, but her work is incredible. Based in Jerusalem, bringing together lots of organizations, and really trying to increase capacity, innovation, and partnership across the field. Meredith, I just thought that to open up the conversation, I wanted to ask you: money and resources are only one part of the proposal. There is also a lot of ingenuity, energy, and ideas out there in the field. Can you talk us through what you think are some of the most exciting and innovative ideas out there that could potentially be ready to scale?
Meredith Rothbart: Thanks, John. I’m the head of Amal-Tikva. I’ll never forget the moment that I was stuck in traffic in East Jerusalem, about three years ago, and John called me, panicked. And he said, “You have to listen to me. Something really important is happening.” I said, “Yes?” He said, “We’re really going to get this money and I need you to get the field ready.” And I said, “It’s gonna be fine. We’ll make sure that the organizations are ready to scale and they’re ready to receive it.”
And so that’s really been our mandate. We began with six months of intensive mapping. Meeting with all of the peace organizations that we could find, asking them about their history, how they’ve grown, who their leadership was, who they are now, why they’re doing what they’re doing, their theories of change, their vision, how they operate, what are their challenges — everything. And we mapped. We asked: who are the donors who are giving, who aren’t giving, who used to give, who might start giving, and tried to understand really the whole picture of peacebuilding. At that point, we came back to ALLMEP and to some of our other partners to figure out how we can get the field from where it was two years ago to a place where this funding arrived.
Just last night, I was on the phone with Tech-to-Peace, for example, an incredible organization bringing together young Israeli and Palestinian leaders between the ages 22 and 30 to learn tech skills and create 8 projects together. They are constantly having hacker events and developing different programs together, and they’ve become a direct feeder into another organization called 50–50 Startups, which is incubating Israeli-Palestinian companies that are creating tech solutions — not necessarily conflict-related, but cross-border issues that is critical to have Israeli and Palestinian business partnerships. These are just two examples of the innovative relationships that we’re seeing.
Now, it’s not always tech, and interesting, sexy ideas that are the most innovative. There are also other models, such as Lissan, one of the organizations we’re working with, who started as a group of Israeli college students working with a group of women from a village called Issawiya, which is right next to Mount Scopus at Hebrew University, who wanted to learn Hebrew so that they could become more employable inside of Jerusalem. And the organization has grown. They have over 20 classes with up to 30 women per class per year, meeting weekly, and they are bringing women from little-to-no Hebrew up to completely working, proficient level. They realized that they needed to perfect their models, and after turning to other ulpans and other Hebrew classes, they realized that the way that they’re operating isn’t really the same. And they actually partnered with an organization called Madreseh, which is teaching Arabic to Israelis. And these two organizations realized that they’re perfectly complementary in terms of their models, and they’re sharing.
John: Excellent. Thank you, Meredith. We’re also lucky to be joined by Huda, who’s the regional director, as I mentioned, for ALLMEP. For those who haven’t met her before, she is a force of nature, one of the most important thought leaders in the peacebuilding space in general, and certainly helping to drive forward some of the policy and innovation that we know is integral to real change. Huda, what I wanted to ask you, and just to be really direct about this: we’ve noticed with funding before that, it goes disproportionately towards Israeli organizations, for a variety of reasons, including a capacity to write proposals and some of the institutional capacities that are there. And I think we’re really keen to see the greatest share possible of this money to go toward Palestinian-led initiatives that can really reshape the reality that you’re working with and dealing with every day. And I was wondering, could you maybe tell us a little bit about your sense for that capacity, and this opportunity for a real innovation and renewal amongst Palestinians’ cross-border civil society?
Huda Abuarquob: Thank you, John. We finished our needs assessment that was focused on the Palestinian partners in the field. There has been heavy concentration of resources coming from Jewish foundations on raising the capacity of shared-society organizations and we have to be subcontractors because most of our organizations don’t have the capacity to even manage funds.
We just finished our needs assessment, and I would share with you some of the findings: one need that was identified by the Palestinian organizations is the need for planning, monitoring, and evaluation. That’s essential when it comes to getting the funds, writing proposals, or even writing reports afterwards. We also found a need for clearer vision, mission, and theory of change, regaining agency and legitimacy within the field, mobilizing cross-border balance between Israelis and Palestinian teams, defining strengths and weaknesses of both, formulating identity in terms of the individuals who are participating, determining chances for successful cooperation, strategizing and partnerships, and I’m naming just a few of the things we discovered.
Next was resource development: working with big donors and deconstructing the jargon they use. And the fact that we don’t have enough staff dedicated to fundraising. We need to be visible, and we need a language that speaks to our constituencies, but also speaks to the world about how peacebuilding is framed by the Palestinians in the space, and we started with creating Palestinian groups working on language, terminology, framing peacebuilding from a Palestinian perspective — in which we have Palestinians from the shared society participating with Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza within the space of peacebuilding.
Now, even the word peacebuilding might not define all the organizations who are under our umbrella. Some of them want to be identified as people-to-people. Others want to take direct action. Others think that education is the best way to change the dynamics. Others believe that high-tech is the only approach to changing the dynamics — that we don’t need to mention peace. I kid you not, peace is a very charged word in the context of Israelis and Palestinians. So, we need to find a way to reclaim peace as a legitimate way of doing — and bear with me here, for using the very charged term: resistance.
Resistance means Palestinians and Israelis working together to change oppressive dynamics on both sides. And in that space, you find people who want to join, and you find people who are terrified with the term resistance because of the baggage that it’s carrying. Our role it ALLMEP is to give our members and leaders a chance to get out of their comfort zone and start thinking about the issues that speak directly to their constituencies. Because if we keep working in bubbles, and in closed rooms, peace is not going to happen.
And that’s why ALLMEP built advocates of inclusivity. We even formulated a document called Feminist Inclusive Political Activism, in which we want to include everyone who can come to the tent. Everyone who thinks that peace is a strategy for survival rather than a strategy for normalizing the occupation.
John: Thank you so much. So, Meredith, we know that peacebuilding is very good at changing individual attitudes, and that shouldn’t be diminished on its own. Afterall, we have a reality now where 90 percent of Palestinians and 79 percent of Israeli Jews think it’s impossible to trust each other. But we also need to have a strategy on how peacebuilding leads to political change. Because ultimately that’s what’s required to end the conflict. I’d love to hear your thinking about how this sort of work can actually be a catalyst towards that sort of final status-oriented political endgame that we’re all aiming toward.
Meredith: One of the biggest challenges we saw in trying to help peace organizations think big and understand the role that they can have in the bigger picture is that, if they’re a dialogue group, or a youth program, or some sort of niche way of bringing people together — the idea of making peace was just too hard. As a young director, when I led Kids4Peace several years ago, it felt every time there was an uptick in violence or a war, that I had failed, and I should just quit. And this is something that a lot of peacebuilders feel, and have felt over time, one of the things that we’ve been working really hard to do is support individuals that are working in this space so that they have a context within which they’re working and see themselves as part of a movement and global team. ALLMEP is hosting a peacebuilders capacity-building forum, where all of the consultants, whether NGOs or private, come together, and we show unity. That we are sharing, we’re working together, we’re cooperating strategically as a unit for the greater good.
Lyndon: Fantastic. Thank you, Meredith. One more question for Huda before we open it up to the attendees. Palestine’s a very young society — the average age is 19 in the West bank and Gaza. Tell us about what you see Palestinian civil society’s role being with regard to the generation of new ideas, new leaders, and new energies.
Huda: Thank you, John, for that question. It’s a tough one, but I’ll try to give you an answer. When you live in a conflict where the leadership on both sides is holds extreme views of how this conflict is going to end, and holds on to old ways of thinking, you’re at an impasse — and in the middle, are the people, on both sides, who are trying to survive day-by-day.
I cannot tell you how difficult it was for me to travel to Jerusalem today. I witnessed someone being shot on the Gush Etzion Roundabout a minute before getting there. I saw that and I still went to Jerusalem for my meetings. Every morning, you question the reasons behind being engaged in this work. It’s a real challenge for the people who are part of the peacebuilding community, but this is the only way that dynamics change on an individual level.
The challenge is to help make that transformation happen on a larger, communal scale. And impact civil society leaders who have the capacity to convene people in a room to talk about ways to survive, ways to deal with the trauma, ways to protect children from educational systems that tell you that you are enemies, and the other is after you, and each group is trying to push the other into the sea.
And we have to look at it from a needs-based theory rather than just a strategy for building relationships. Or a strategy for getting the elite into a conversation. It actually requires a strategy for the people who have been marginalized in both societies to get engaged. And guess what? It works. They get so empowered, they reach their potential, and they start to change at home. The challenge now is to give them enough power to scale that transformation to a level that can bring more communities into the conversation.
When I was helping Women Wage Peace, which is one of our organizations, launch itself into Israeli society, I, as the Palestinian in the room, was the one who insisted that they shouldn’t use the word occupation. Because that would get them labeled as “lefty”, and again, left is viewed as a dirty word, Also because it’s going to alienate many marginalized groups in Israeli society that are hardline when it comes to politics. And if you want to help expand the conversation, you need to find a way to get in. And if the word “occupation” is one of those words that will hinder that conversation, I am, as a Palestinian, for not using it. Instead, we use “ending the conflict” which, in my opinion, contains all the other issues beyond the occupation that have to be addressed. The conflict is much bigger than just the occupation.
A second example is about redefining power. Israel is a very militarized society. In Palestine, there is this sickness for some sort of heroism, because your dignity as a human being is crushed on a daily basis. And you need to find a way in order to reclaim a sense of dignified being. We want them to find their own way to survive and build a resiliency to continue to claim a degree of human dignity that gets them to move beyond being victims and enemies.
Jonathan: Thank you so much John, Meredith, and Huda. Thank you for sharing your perspectives with us so candidly, openly, and expansively. I hope we can meet you all in person when Heart of a Nation comes to Israel and Palestine in January. I’d now like to bring other people into this conversation.
Muna Adi Zahr: I love what has been said about the content of the word when it is spoken. When we speak, we create, and when that creation happens, the environment gets affected. So, each one of us needs to be responsible for the content of the words we speak, sometimes we use words because the media said them, or because of the indoctrination has been going on for years, and we repeat them without giving any consideration to the listener, and how it affects them. So, bridge-building and finding common ground is crucial. We’ve heard the word peace so many times, my question is this: Is it peace that we’re really seeking, or is it really just human beings recognizing each other, and trying to make neighbors on both sides live comfortably, with full respect for each other as human beings?
Jonathan: Muna, thank you. Words matter so much: peace, justice, dignity, and compassion. John, do you want to respond?
Lyndon: I’m happy to give my view, but obviously Huda’s and Meredith’s perspectives are more important on the ground. There’s a Disneyland idea of peace processes. Sometimes, it’s in our interest to talk about it in those terms, when we’re trying to convince a member of Congress or a diplomat, but the reality, day to day, is tougher. To your question, Muna, people need to treat each other with a minimum level of dignity, that many of us take for granted, but that — in its absence — will catalyze violent ethnic conflict. And that has to be a daily behavior, not a destination you get to. It’s a way of being in a process. Jonathan mentioned the word justice. That word very often terrifies people on either side of conflicts. Whereas, when you take the immediate risk of violence out as an automatic reaction, certainly those very difficult questions can be put on a table without everybody losing their minds. And what I’m seeing in Northern Ireland now, which is really interesting, is that questions about identity that were totally taboo, are now front and center. There’s no reason in the world why that same process can’t take place amongst Israelis and Palestinians.
Huda: Muna, this is a very good question. For me, peace is when I see kids playing together, speaking English, Hebrew, Arabic interchangeably, go back home safely, get a warm meal, with sane parents taking care of them — growing up in a way that they can decide on their identity, who they should be, whether it’s nationally, sexually, or even socially, what group they want to belong to. For me it’s to see these kids playing in this place that doesn’t tell them what they should be. And from there I want to bring women, mothers in particular, to the vision of peace. We sometimes forget that they are the ones who are on the receiving end of great pain and loss and trauma. And they are the ones who spend most of the time with these kids who are going to grow up in this environment. I have 33 nieces and nephews, and I don’t want them to grow up thinking that they are less or more than any other person. I want them to have the same privileges and rights as anyone else. I know this is not currently happening anywhere in the world, but at least some get to live by these principles. That’s peace for me, personally.
Emily Zimmern: Thank you John, and Meredith, and Huda for your inspiring and informed presentation. There was a comment about the need to change some of the theories of change that organizations in Israel and in Palestine use in peacebuilding. Could you expand that? And then a follow-up for all of us: What can we do to help support your initiatives?
Meredith: Without using too much jargon, Emily, I’ll try to tell you a little about what we’re talking about. We’ve been developing tools to guide NGOs through a process of figuring out what is the problem they’re trying to solve? We bring them down to a unique, specific element of the conflict that they are specifically addressing and help them see how their work actually contributes towards ending that specific problem. How do they accomplish their mission, and make sure everything they do is constantly mission-driven? It’s part of a shared theory of change, that no individual organization can make peace by itself, but that if all understand the larger landscape, and each organization knows what its unique role is, and each person knows their role in that organization and how they contribute to that organization’s success, then — as a movement — we’re able to create change together — and measure it.
Jonathan: And to address Emily’s follow-up question — the question that all of us at Heart of a Nation ask on a regular basis: what can we do to support the essential work that we just heard described? What can we do in the United States, in Israel, and in Palestine? How can those of us committed to this effort come together to be a support system for those of you who are so devoted to these efforts?
Lyndon: If you’re a U.S. citizen, write to your representatives and tell them how important this work is for you that it be supported as a priority by the United States. We need to make sure this funding is continued and expanded. There’s an opportunity for multinational partnership. The United Kingdom has already endorsed this international-form concept. The Biden administration and members of Congress will only push in that direction if they hear from constituents that it’s a priority. Next, take a look at ALLMEP’s members. There are over 150 organizations there now. I guarantee that they’d all like to hear from you: drop a peacebuilding organization a note of support with a financial contribution. If you can’t do that, send them an email anyway, and ask how you can help in some other way. It’s lonely, being a peacebuilder. You can feel isolated. Those messages actually matter a lot. And the final thing I’d say is this: diaspora communities can play a game-changing role. In Northern Ireland, in the 70s and 80s, they were a big part of the problem — sending guns to Northern Ireland, incentivizing the very worst actors to be even more hardline. Eventually, they did a 180 degree turn about. They had the circumspection to say: “maybe we should try this other approach.” And they were trusted by their cousins on the ground in ways that other third parties aren’t. And I think there’s a real opportunity for the Palestinian and Jewish diaspora to play that role. I think if that happened, over time, you would see a lot of behavior-changing in the region as a result.
Jonathan: Fabulous initiatives for Heart of a Nation.
Meredith: There are so many ways to get involved. Our mission is really three-fold right now. One: is to build capacity of the NGOs, so if you have skills, ideas, connections, relationships, mentorships, we need that. One of the programs that we’re building through a project of ours called Embodying Peace, is a mentorship program. Where we’re connecting experts from around the world who have skills, who have perspective, who have a little bit of time to give, with NGO leaders, with emerging leaders, to be an ear for them. Someone outside of the work, someone with a different perspective. And if you’re interested in joining this new program we’re developing, I would love to connect you to NGO leaders, and I’m sure John and Huda have plenty who are also looking to connect to mentors. Another opportunity is — for the first time, and this is really exciting — we are hosting an umbrella fundraising campaign for Israeli and Palestinian peace NGOs. We’re doing this in partnership with B8 of Hope, which is another umbrella organization for Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding. This will be a major landing page where you can see at least 10–15 grassroots, cross-border peacebuilding organizations that are doing crowdfunding. Who have never really done major fundraising online at scale. And we’re going to need as many people as possible to be spreading the word and sharing about this campaign.
And of course, on Amal-Tikva’s website, we have organizations that we would be more than happy to help you figure out who you’d be interested in working with and supporting.
Huda: Also, when people come to you with dismissive claims about the peacebuilding community, saying things like “it’s not doing anything, it’s overrated, it’s just hugging trees,” share with them what you’ve learned on this call. We literally take life-risks to meet. We need to amplify the work of the people who are on the ground. These are people who believe that this is worth taking risk for. That’s not something to take for granted. We have to fight the system to get permits and cross checkpoints to get together. We have to take off certain hats when we are in the room. We do open heart surgery when we are in the room. That’s the only way to do this work.
And when people tell you “the Palestinians are normalizing the occupation,” tell them that the Palestinians are trying to find a way to reclaim power over their own destiny. And change the game from their own perspective. Because peace for them is not a strategy — peace for them is a need. And that the Palestinians are not all violent. And that the Palestinians are not all Hamas or Fatah. And the majority of them are just trying to find a way to survive on a daily basis. We need help amplifying this work. We want people, especially those from academia, who think this work is just about contact theory, to know that this work is actually changing brains and hearts and attitudes of hardliners on both sides. But they are not brave enough yet to come out and say that. We are the most courageous Palestinians and Israelis now because we are not hiding behind an ideology or a dominant narrative. We’re trying to break through this and give a chance to the young generation to claim their own identity.
Jonathan: Thank you Huda and Meredith. And a special thanks to you John, for working with Heart of a Nation to put this forum together. We look forward to working together to determine ways of actualizing each of the things that have been mentioned. They represent the best possible roadmap for those of us committed to the generational struggle to change the way progressive individuals and organizations within America, Israel and Palestine relate to one another. To begin to see themselves as natural, organic partners in the pursuit of peace and human dignity.
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