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Is bypassing politics how you bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians? New U.S. legislation says yes.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a simple one: Every prior attempt at peace ultimately hit the same obstacle, namely, Israelis and Palestinians would not budge because they did not believe they had a partner on the other side. It’s a problem that has only intensified since the last attempts at diplomacy; a recent study found that 90% of Palestinians today say that Jewish Israelis cannot be trusted, and 79% of Jewish Israelis feel the same about Palestinians. Dehumanization, zero-sum thinking, and support for violence are up. Trust, respect, and hope for peace are down.

Fortunately, tucked away in Monday’s 5,000-page federal funding bill is a solution to just that problem, in the form of the Nita M. Lowey Partnership Fund for Peace Act of 2020.

This legislation is the result of over a decade of advocacy by the Alliance for Middle East Peace, of which I am the founder and president. And it marks a dramatic pivot away from three decades of U.S. strategy, which has in the past sought to strong-arm politicians into signing a peace deal in the hopes that public support would follow.

It never worked, so this time, we are starting by investing deeply and broadly in building cooperation, trust, and support for peace between Israelis and Palestinians in their daily lives. And once we reach critical mass, the politicians will have no choice but to follow. The Lowey Partnership Fund drives a quarter-billion dollars toward the first five years of that effort.

This strategy is not speculative or experimental. Rather, it’s exactly what worked in Northern Ireland. In the mid-1980s, as the violence there raged, the U.S. and its allies established an International Fund for Ireland (IFI), which quickly got to work building people-to-people and economic cooperation between the warring sides.

Twelve years later, the ground was fertile for the Good Friday Accords. And over thirty years and $1.5 billion later, the IFI continues to secure peace.

What did it take? Approximately $44 was spent per person per year in this Northern Ireland effort.

The beauty of the IFI was leverage, scale, coordination, and expertise. It was a multinational fund that pooled contributions from several countries to reach a conflict-crushing scale of $1.5 billion. It created a centralized, expert entity to lead a coordinated, long-term strategy. It earned quick credibility with both sides because each saw its supporters among the donor nations.

Similar people-to-people projects have proved their mettle among Israelis and Palestinians over more than 30 years. They’ve evolved and matured, and long-term data show that they work, commensurate with their modest budgets. Participants emerge with feelings of trust and support for peace that reverberate even years later. Many even devote their lives to the cause.

Therein lies the power in the new Lowey Partnership Fund: Not only was it inspired by the IFI, but the bill passed by Congress opens the door wide-open to adopting a similar model.

The new fund gives the incoming Biden administration every authority and mandate that it needs to convene a group of allies and launch an international fund within 12 months that can pump $200 million per year into the ground game for peace. Once they do, the peace builders would — finally — operate at the scale of the conflict itself.

The new law makes plenty of room for this approach. It explicitly states that “the United States and its international partners can help the people of the region build popular support for sustainable agreements for lasting peace.” It urges the United States Agency for International Development “to work with foreign governments and international organizations to leverage the impact of United States resources and achieve the objectives” of the fund.

It does not require that the U.S. provide funds directly “to” projects but only “for” them. In addition, until an international entity is up and running, an internal USAID advisory board will even have seats for foreign governments and international organizations.

The bill calls on two U.S. agencies — USAID and the International Development Finance Corporation — to lend their expertise and oversight to implementing this fund. Importantly, both agencies have general authority in their founding legislation to redirect funds through each other, to other countries, and through other entities to achieve their missions.

This funding is absolutely unprecedented. In all the years of trying to force peace from the top down at the negotiating table, no one has ever invested in ground-up peace building at this scale to create an environment where diplomacy can work. If we can reach just 25% of Israelis and Palestinians, everyone — every family — will know real humans on the other side.

Interest already is growing worldwide. In addition to the U.S., the U.K. formally endorsed the International Fund concept, with several EU states likely to follow. The Arab world, especially Israel’s new regional partners in the Gulf, should not be far behind, allowing them to demonstrate to their skeptical Palestinian neighbors that these recent agreements are intended to serve as steps toward ending the conflict, not bypassing it.

As the Biden administration assesses its options, this opportunity rests in its hands. It is not self-executing. They have the money and the authority. But they will have to lead to realize its potential.

Get the international fund set up quickly with foreign partners, and within a few short years diplomacy could be a real option. Many presidents have tried diplomacy, but no administration in history has had the benefit of an environment that was conducive to peace, much less a long-term tool to create it. Let’s get to work.

Avi Meyerstein is the founder and president of the Alliance for Middle East Peace.

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