‘Global Britain’ must mean investing in Israeli-Palestinian peace-building

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My fellow Labour Friends of Israel vice-chair Catherine McKinnell has today secured a parliamentary debate on UK support for an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. This debate could not come at a better time.

The US House of Representatives recently approved legislation that brought the establishment of an international fund a crucial step closer to reality. The legislation is now progressing through the Senate. Following the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, there is a huge opportunity for the UK to get behind a multilateral initiative to provide tangible support to Israeli-Palestinian peace-building and demonstrate to the incoming Biden-Harris administration that the UK is serious about international cooperation.

The US Middle East Partnership for Peace Act – sponsored by the much-respected Democrat congresswoman Nita Lowey – will allocate the fund $110m over five years to support people-to-people projects between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as a further much-needed $140m in investments in the Palestinian economy. But the inspiration for the fund, which has been promoted by the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) and championed here in the UK by Labour Friends of Israel, lies rather closer to home.

During the darkest days of the Troubles in the mid-1980s, the new International Fund for Ireland began investing in peace-building work in Northern Ireland. Those projects provided the civic society foundations upon which the Good Friday Agreement was later built and helped establish a reservoir of public support in both the unionist and nationalist communities that has sustained peace in Northern Ireland through multiple ups and downs over the past two decades.

The US legislation, which has bipartisan support, and the backing of influential Democrats and Republicans in the US Senate, will not simply reverse President Donald Trump’s reckless decision in 2018 to slash US support for coexistence projects. It instead offers a ground-breaking opportunity, albeit in the very different circumstances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to invest in the same kind of civic society work that proved so important in Northern Ireland. And the legislation, which is totally separate from the Trump administration’s deeply flawed peace plan, would help underpin and support any new Middle East initiative taken by the Biden administration.

However, as conceptualised by ALLMEP, the fund is not supposed to be a US-dominated or solely US-funded institution, and the new US legislation leaves open the door to other international actors both donating to it and participating in its governance. The fund will bring an expert, strategic approach to grassroots peace-building, targeting funding on joint economic development and civil society projects that promote coexistence and broad support for peace even while they improve social and economic conditions on the ground.

There is robust evidence to suggest that – even on their present small scale – the work done by coexistence projects in Israel and Palestine can produce positive results. Peace-building work, research conducted by the academic Ned Lazarus in 2017 found, significantly improves Israeli and Palestinian participants’ attitudes to one another. The US international development agency, USAID, agrees. It has suggested that those participating in cross-border coexistence report higher levels of trust and cooperation, more “conflict resolution values”, and less aggression and loneliness.

Regrettably, however, the UK government has failed to embrace the opportunity provided by the establishment of the international fund. While offering occasional warm words, it has remained steadfastly detached from international discussions and engagement. It has also shown no inclination to offer any form of financial support. Sadly, this reflects the government’s lack of interest in coexistence work more broadly.

In 2016, previous small-scale investment in people-to-people projects through the Conflict Security and Stability Fund was eliminated. A year later, following campaigning by LFI, the government announced a new three-year £3m programme. While we awaited the Department for International Development’s formal evaluation, this programme was conducted in a highly secretive manner with no open process for existing projects to bid for funding and key players on the ground seemingly shut out of participation. The government has now, once again, axed UK support for people-to-people work, despite experts and practitioners arguing that is only through long-term and sustained investment that these projects have any chance of producing real and lasting results.

It is long-term and sustained investment that the fund will offer. The Prime Minister now has the opportunity to show that his much-vaunted ambitions for ‘global Britain’ are not simply meaningless waffle. There would be few better ways of showing it than the government stepping up to support – and invest in – an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

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