IPCRI Panel Presentation on People to People Jan. 21, 2002

Judith Green


It is hard to say this before an audience of enthusiastic peace-builders, but, in my opinion, we over-estimated our significance in the past decade and may not be fully employed in the next.  We had a clear goal: to move, together with our communities, towards a negotiated political solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict acceptable to and respected by both sides, with a minimum of violence, death and aggression.  I remember our Palestinian colleagues setting this as a community priority, working together as private citizens with considerable creativity, with different strategies and new techniques, including dialogue and P2P activities. The model is still attractive, and the intentions were honest, but any Palestinian or Israeli peace-builder looking at our situation in the year 2002 must admit we failed. Self-empowerment is a good thing, but must be judged against results.  If our message and our tools proved to be inadequate over the past 15 years, I am amazed that people can believe similar messages, with similar tools, will be effective in the present situation, which is many giant steps behind that of 1988. We have to totally put aside any egoistic attachment to our past accomplishments and admit that our efforts have not accomplished their most important goal, a reduction of suffering and hatred. We may see ourselves as a democratic, humanistic grass-roots movement, but by many others in our societies we are perceived as arrogant, elitist and foolish;  some would blame us  the peaceniks - for the present situation, others would more reasonably claim that our work in no way prevented it.  Some Palestinians believe that the involvement of the Israeli peace camp diverted the first intifada from its proper track and only prolonged their struggle, while many Israelis accuse us of inciting the Palestinians by promoting unrealistic goals and thus endangering our own future. These are serious charges, in a life and death context. Meanwhile, being so busy with our extra-parliamentary and protest activities in Israel, we have left the political parties closest to us depleted of grass-roots manpower and created a dangerous power vacuum at the governmental level where policy is actually made.

 The P2P work which followed the Oslo Accords should have passed the start-up phase of spontaneous and decentralized action into a period of organizational development, marketing and legitimitization of the peace process.  I remember fondly the slogan of our Nablus dialogue group:  Lets Make the Peace Process Work.  The motivation for the participants was to spread new modes of thinking and behavior into broader sectors on both sides, in tune with and bringing out the best in the supposed new political policies of the Israeli gov't and the PNA.  Slowly, more and more Israelis and Palestinians participated, although there were repeated warnings, from the Palestinian side, against too swift normalization, too slow change on the ground and anxiety about the nature and direction of the  PNA.  Here I think the Israelis pushed too hard, were too sure of themselves, and not sufficiently sensitive to the political resistance of large parts of the public.  There wasn't  enough strategic thinking, but rather a continuation

of ad hoc, sporadically funded activity, with little linkage either to governmental bodies above or large portions of the public below.  Planning was left to the imagination of the various organizations, goals were short term with little prioritizing. At the same time, extremists on both sides accompanied the process with violence and accusations of betrayal.  The same extremists who were purposely left out of the process turned out to be stronger than it.

The post-2nd Intifada phase, probably also post-Sharon and Arafat, will necessarily consist of the economic and moral rehabilitation of the 2 societies, building trust in new political leadership and creating different centers of power and influence for peace-building.  This is likely to be a phase of enforced separation, awaiting the solution for the conflict. Consider the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which have been relatively successful in preventing bloodshed, even under provocation.  We should ask ourselves How is this, when there was absolutely no people to people work, almost no preliminary peace making and, on the Egyptian side, persistent rejection of such activities on every level of the society? With Jordan, there were many joint academic and economic projects after the peace treaty, but even then not very public and with many restrictions and hesitations on the Jordanian side. Can we find some special reason then why the people to people level should be more vital for making peace with the Palestinians?  Is it more important than fixing a border and a cease fire? If we aren't aiming at a single bi-national state, what exactly are our motives for insisting on the platitudes about peace being made from the ground up, between people not politicians, etc.?  I see no proof of this.

So my criticism of the P2P phase of this process is not in the particulars of how the activities themselves were carried out. In fact, Israel/Palestine received a lot of supportive and positive feedback during this period from international experts and peace organizations.  So our self-image as "the good Israelis" was reinforced while we were totally impatient with opposition groups.  Maybe this generous support hid from us the fact that we do not represent the grass-roots  they are the thousands demonstrating on our streets now for hatred, revenge and the absolute "justice" of their own side  and neither are we among or allied to those holding political or military power.  We are simply left in the middle, with good intentions and no useful support from either side. Without high-level public support during the critical phase of political transition, and without including all political sectors, even the most extreme, in the public discussion, it is mere romanticism to think that a group of high-minded individuals, with a minimum of financial and governmental backing, can be an effective partner to or catalyst of any peace agreement.  There has to be a concerted effort to be inclusive, to make peace-building a national priority, not a privileged game for the initiates.   Of course, it is important and healthy that we keep our across-borders friendships and professional contacts. But in the present violent reality, it would be hubristic in the extreme to think that the same small groups of Israelis and Palestinians, a few 1000 at most on either side, are sufficient and acceptable leadership to bring about or sustain change.

So, given that skeptcism, is there anything to be done now? While there is a hiatus of public activity,  there is time for strategic thinking.  Peace work is not revolutionary activism but rather a kind of guerilla warfare:  there is a time to lay low, and a time to spring into action, a time to regroup and a time to attack on a new front.

 1. Activists and funders must be clearer and more self-conscious about distinctions between political protest, humanitarian aid, human rights work, political parties and P2P activities.  No organization can do all of these things, and each should be clear about its identity and correct in its timing. It follows from this, that coalitions between organizations must also be careful about the advantages and costs of their working together  we can't assume peace means the same thing to all. Israelis also have to deal with a new phenomenon, the various International Solidarity groups and self-appointed peace forces arriving in the area, who have more or less replaced the Israeli peace camp as partners for Palestinian activists and who do not necessariy hold reconciliation or peace-making between Palestinians and Israelis as a priority.  Is it appropriate for P2P organizations to be linked with what are basically Palestinian solidarity groups here and abroad?  How do Palestinians evalute what is best for them now? I also call upon the various political research organizations and the national and regional strategic think tanks, to discuss their findings with us and to use our experience and contacts in new ways.  We all are familiar with the researchers and writers who take up much time with tracking and questioning our work, but never share their results, as though we are acting on some automatic pilot and have neither the interest nor the ability to profit from their academic analysis.  In fact, their findings are often crucial and could prevent a lot of wasted time and energy.

2.  The funding mechanisms could switch from funding short-term projects and peace NGOs into increasing the capabilities of existing, widely placed and politically neutral institutions and individuals who could share in mediating democratic change in our society. Wouldn't it make more sense, and be more truly democratic, to "infiltrate" these groups with suitable peace-building projects, rather than try hopelessly to attract members of the periphery into working with what are seen as arrogant and politically-tainted peace organizations?  This might also circumvent the natural suspicion of the motives of people who make a living from peace and reconciliation work, which was indeed a significant problem during the Oslo period. We could learn from the example of the National Peace Accords in South Africa, when local community organizations were used as catalysts and instructors for the radical political change during the 4 year period of transition from Apartheid to their first democratic elections.

3. Funders could gather P2P practitioners who have gained experience and expertise during the past decade  that is, mediators, facilitators, ecologists, educators, health professionals, city planners, artists, etc. who have already led and participated in P2P work  to form a think tank and work as consultants to identify and make contact with local power bases and institutions, and then work with them in developing their capacities for rehabilitation, mediation, and expansion of the P2P frameworks which already exist in certain areas (especially education, planning and health).

 4.  Give more time to working with the existing political parties and government level ministries.  Many of us turn to extra-parliamentary activities in despair and cynicism about the official political process here.  There is a place for this, but without linkage at the first track level our work is fated to be only symbolic.  Aim toward creating a Peace Ministry in the next government.

 5.  Concentrate on work within Israel, between the Jewish and Arab sectors, and between East and West Jerusalem. This is appropriate, doeable, and crucial.

6.  Professonalize and deepen the attention paid to the field of media and conflict.  By this  I definitely do not mean repeating the pointless complaint that "the press doesn't report our peace activities".  In the face of the current mayhem, hatred and destruction of any remnant of the peace process, I am astounded to hear people continue to complain that the press isn't fascinated by every group of Israeli citizens who take it upon themselves to tell the government what to do.  The problem with the media as inciting conflict is one which is organic and typical of the role of the press all over the world. Very innovative and professional work is being done on the role of the media in conflict resolution versus conflict incitement; for instance, by the Peace Media Center in South Africa, or the Center for War, Peace and the News Media at NYU.  Their work should be studied and experts invited here to work with local media professionals and political activists.

The bottom line is that I consider the previous forms of cross-borders P2P work as not well based or politically appropriate at this time, even if there are some Palestinian and Israeli volunteers. I learned 2 humbling things during a timely visit in Cyprus last week:  In the 15 years of ethnic violence before the 1974 partition of the Island between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, more than 6000 on both sides were killed.  In the 25 years since the partition and the creation of the buffer zone there was a total of 16, about the same number that die on the island's highways in a typical month.  So perhaps diplomats and peacemakers who wring their hands over the on-going stalemate there and lack of contact between the peoples should actually be taking notes and trying to export it elsewhere.   Secondly, the impetus for the present peace talks there was not the 10 years of excellent work done by Cypriot dialogue groups, but rather the deadlines and conditions set for the membership of Cyprus and Turkey in the European Union.  Here too we are at the mercy of many factors outside our control, including masses of very angry, disappointed and vengeful Israelis and Palestinians, so let's be modest and at least learn from our failures.