Argument

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There’s Hope for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

A new bipartisan act in Congress could make up for time lost under Trump—and more.

A Palestinian protester waves a Palestinian flag during a demonstration in the village of Ras Karkar in the occupied West Bank, on Sept. 4, 2018.
A Palestinian protester waves a Palestinian flag during a demonstration in the village of Ras Karkar in the occupied West Bank, on Sept. 4, 2018. Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images

As the Biden administration resets the United States’ posture toward Israel and the Palestinians, Congress included a bit of hope for the region in passing a bipartisan spending bill that closed out 2020. The Nita M. Lowey Partnership Fund for Peace Act provides $250 million over five years to achieve two critical objectives: bolster the Palestinian economy and support peace and reconciliation programs in the region. It is the United States’ largest investment in Israeli-Palestinian peace to date and the first effort of its kind to pass Congress since the 1993 Oslo Accords. And although it may look like a pittance to some, the fund injects a modicum of momentum into a peace process that has been backsliding for decades.

Across the Palestinian territories, the economy is in deep decline. Combined, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have one of the highest unemployment rates in the world; poverty levels are close to 30 percent. COVID-19 is worsening economic conditions and threatening an already overtaxed, underequipped health care system in Gaza. Palestinians may be last in line for a vaccine.

As the Biden administration resets the United States’ posture toward Israel and the Palestinians, Congress included a bit of hope for the region in passing a bipartisan spending bill that closed out 2020. The Nita M. Lowey Partnership Fund for Peace Act provides $250 million over five years to achieve two critical objectives: bolster the Palestinian economy and support peace and reconciliation programs in the region. It is the United States’ largest investment in Israeli-Palestinian peace to date and the first effort of its kind to pass Congress since the 1993 Oslo Accords. And although it may look like a pittance to some, the fund injects a modicum of momentum into a peace process that has been backsliding for decades.

Across the Palestinian territories, the economy is in deep decline. Combined, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have one of the highest unemployment rates in the world; poverty levels are close to 30 percent. COVID-19 is worsening economic conditions and threatening an already overtaxed, underequipped health care system in Gaza. Palestinians may be last in line for a vaccine.

At the same time, the Palestinian Authority teeters on the verge of collapse. Its corrupt leadership is in disarray, and the area appears to be increasingly abandoned by its Arab brothers and the international community writ large. Hopelessness seethes through the territories, portending instability.

If a two-state solution is ever to be attainable, the Israelis and Palestinians will need practical, positive measures that bring the parties together—at the political level but also on the ground. Israelis and Palestinians have never been further apart on the issues, and, as John Lyndon of the Alliance for Middle East Peace has pointed out, their citizens have less contact than ever before. Support for a two-state outcome is fast dissipating among Israelis and Palestinians alike with younger generations even less supportive than their older counterparts. Indeed, the majority no longer believe a two-state solution is feasible, yet few can agree on a viable alternative.

No matter how supportive a U.S. administration is of one party or the other, the two sides cannot just wish the other away. People-to-people programs, like those the Lowey fund is intended to support, are among the few opportunities the two sides have to engage with one another and confront the critical issues they face. The existing menu of programs is wide ranging, touching Israeli and Palestinian society at every level, often in creative ways.

Programs like the Champions for Peace Project use sports to bring together Israeli and Palestinian youth; Kids for Peace convenes children and families at summer camps. Training programs like the Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow offer joint education on technology and entrepreneurship; the Palestinian Internship Program helps funnel Palestinian interns into Israeli-based tech and financial firms. More traditional sectors have benefited as well: The Near East Foundation’s Olive Oil Without Borders project has brought together hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis to upgrade production and improve market access while fostering relationships within the olive oil industry.

The Trump administration’s policy of blocking assistance to the Palestinian people—driven by a strategy aimed at squeezing the Palestinian Authority, combined with legal complications caused by the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act—has forced many joint programs to shutter or relocate over the past few years; others scaled back. Lack of funding and political support have also prevented new and innovative programming from taking root, hindering opportunities to scale but also actively starving these hard-fought gains.

By supporting peace-building initiatives now, the act sends a message that Americans on both sides of the aisle still care about advancing peace and are willing to invest in it. The fund’s structure also bolsters multilateral engagement in a way that is likely to align nicely with President Joe Biden’s preferred approach to the region. While the fund will be primarily U.S. financed and advised, it seeks complementary money from international actors. Two advisory seats are held for other countries. As Israel’s normalization agreements with some of its neighbors set in, the number of stakeholders able to help steer the parties in a positive direction grows. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates—or any other Persian Gulf state leaning into normalization—can use the fund as an opportunity to partner with the United States in investing in and advancing the peace it claims to still fervently support. Historically, Arab countries have been more inclined to support projects that address Palestinian needs as opposed to joint ventures. The fund offers a relatively low-cost, low-risk avenue for tangibly advancing peace between both parties while at the same time signaling support to a new U.S. administration for its leadership role in promoting peace.

As the United States scrambles to address myriad domestic problems, modest efforts to engage the parties will be critical. A breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians is unlikely tomorrow, and grassroot efforts cannot supplant a political process. The new administration has already indicated it will start by rebuilding much of what was dismantled under the Trump administration. It will work to resume relations with the Palestinian Authority, reopen the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem and the PLO mission in Washington, and most importantly, work to put bilateral assistance to the Palestinians back into the pipeline.

In the long term, the Biden administration will look for ways to ease tensions between the parties with the ultimate goal of bringing the leadership closer together. At the same time, Biden is unlikely to pursue a splashy approach to peace that would lead to a grand bargain; he will settle instead for smaller measures that have meaningful day-to-day impact. But positive support—outside the headlines and inside the trenches—will help drive progress on the ground. Resurrecting people-to-people engagement and breathing life into a flailing Palestinian economy will be critical among those steps.

Carmiel Arbit is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council. She was previously the director of strategic engagement at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

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