In early September the Trump administration barred Palestinians from accessing the last remaining pot of U.S. assistance available to them—the Israeli-Palestinian people-to-people (P2P) reconciliation fund administered through the Conflict Management and Mitigation (CMM) office of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The P2P program was started by Congress in 2004 to “support conflict mitigation and reconciliation programs and activities which bring together individuals of different ethnic, religious or political backgrounds from areas of civil conflict and war.” The $26 million annual grant program is global, but each year Congress instructs the administration to spend approximately $10 million specifically on Israeli-Palestinian P2P programs, making the United States the single largest funder of these activities. Congressional support for CMM programs has been considerable, with appropriators voting to increase the Israeli-Palestinian share of CMM grants by 20 percent (to $12 million) for the 2018 fiscal year.
Yet in a move that runs counter to President Donald Trump’s stated support for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the administration announced that CMM funds could no longer go to cross-border activities, which traditionally make up two-thirds of CMM programming in the Israeli-Palestinian space, with the remaining third going to shared society programs within Israel. While internal Israeli programs are important, they represent just one small part of the civil society work that is crucial to bridging the vast physical and psychological divide between Israelis and Palestinians within and across the boundary separating the West Bank and Israel proper that is necessary to maintain a lasting peace.
In recent months, the Trump administration has engaged in a series of retributive acts against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, from closing the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington to slashing U.S. funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which takes care of Palestinian refugees, to ending support for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network. However, eliminating cross-border P2P funding, while one of the least publicized cuts, may be one of the most damaging to prospects for peace.
Why does P2P programming matter?
First, civil society groups can do things that governments cannot or will not do. If the Trump administration is serious about wanting to make a Middle East peace deal a cornerstone of its legacy, it must learn the lessons of the Oslo Accords. They ultimately failed in part because the Israeli and Palestinian publics were not prepared for peace. The CMM program tries to alleviate this problem by working on building positive conditions for peace at the societal level—regardless of the status of negotiations.
Furthermore, whether legally or logistically, government officials do not have the capacity to do the creative, innovative, grassroots work necessary to make real change on the ground and create the conditions conducive to a lasting settlement to the conflict. That is why the Trump administration should be enthusiastically supporting the CMM grantees and others like them who are doing the hard work of building tolerance and trust among the Israeli and Palestinian publics, not hampering their efforts.
Second, young people, who make up a large part of the beneficiaries of CMM grants, are willing to take risks that others will not. When I served in the State Department’s Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs, I witnessed this repeatedly.
In the midst of the 2014 Gaza war, for example, when tensions between Israelis and Palestinians were at their highest, I met with Father Josh Thomas, the director of CMM grantee Kids4Peace, which engages Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youths and their parents in Jerusalem in year-round interfaith programming. To my surprise, Thomas told me that despite the raging war, the kids refused to stop meeting. While many Israelis and Palestinians were, understandably, further separating from each other out of anger and hate, cross-border P2P programs worked even harder to build a culture of tolerance and reconciliation among Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
Third, those on both sides of the conflict have not given up hope. While the percentage of Israelis and Palestinians who support a two-state solution has slightly declined over the past few years, the number and scope of CMM applicants and grantees continue to grow and some cross-border organizations have been able to dramatically increase their size and outreach due to CMM funding. Negotiators often forget that while leaders may write a peace treaty, peace is not made at the negotiating table—it is made on the streets.
The Trump administration’s declared reason for cutting off all support for Palestinians is that the loss of funding will force the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table. But this sharp-stick approach will likely fail. Cross-border civil society groups should be the administration’s strongest allies, not its enemies. And by giving up its small investment in the Israeli and Palestinian people, the United States is sending a very loud signal that its “peace process” is a sham.
Given the administration’s poisonous posture toward all things Palestinian, it is unlikely to change its position on cross-border P2P programming anytime soon. But even more troubling is the fear that Congress will react to the administration’s announcement by doing away with the Israeli-Palestinian allotment of the program altogether. While barring grants to Palestinians may be “contrary to the tradition of the funds and intent of the Congress,” according to one of the key Senate staffers involved in the program, keeping the funding stream open for shared society programs makes it far more likely that cross-border programming can be added again in the future, once the administration (or its position) changes.
However, should Congress decide to do away with the Israeli-Palestinian portion of CMM funding altogether, it would be doing just as much harm as the administration to the brave organizations and individuals who continue to work each day for peace.