John Lyndon is the CEO of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP).
Since 7 October, violence and injustice at an unprecedented scale have been – even by the grim standards set in recent decades – visited on Israelis and Palestinians. Extraordinary numbers of people have been killed, taken hostage, and displaced, and provocations in the West Bank and along the Israel-Lebanon border threaten more escalation. The community of 160+ organisations that make up the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), counts members, family and friends in both Israel and Palestine who are among the victims.
The idea that this conflict could be managed, and that the status quo was more or less sustainable has been exposed as the dangerous fiction it always was. There will be reckonings on both sides after this devastating war, and it is likely that old ideas and leaders will be pushed aside, as Israelis and Palestinians examine the wreckage and grieve for those lost. But what about those of us lucky enough to live in relative safety and privilege overseas?
The international community bought into this same fiction by deprioritising the conflict for a decade, and was complicit in supporting the idea that it could be managed rather than resolved. The last substantive peace negotiations were almost a decade ago. That’s half the lifetime of the median Palestinian. And those negotiations betrayed – as did all their predecessors – the two key flaws which must be overcome in the diplomatic process moving forward.
First, we must move beyond the era of the U.S. being the sole custodian of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and instead create a broader and more inclusive international mechanism, leveraging the added value of the EU, the UK, G7 partners and – most critically – the wider Arab world. And second, we must build a bottom-up strategy that is just as ambitious, with just as much multilateral engagement, so that constituencies that can support and sustain a diplomatic agreement are being scaled and amplified. As then Secretary of State John Kerry said in 2016, ‘In the end, I believe the negotiations did not fail because the gaps were too wide, but because the level of trust was too low. Both sides were concerned that any concessions would not be reciprocated and would come at too great a political cost. And the deep public skepticism only made it more difficult for them to be able to take risks.’
This is how we break the cycle of siloed diplomacy
Relying solely on diplomatic efforts from individual countries ties progress to their electoral cycles and the ever-changing landscape of their national political priorities. We already know that 2024 is likely to be the most important year for Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy in decades. And, we also know that it will be the year where more people go to the polls than any other, with pivotal elections in the UK, the EU and of course in the US.
Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy cannot wait for the outcome of these elections, with a dangerous vacuum already being created and no doubt filled by bad actors and even worse ideas. Israel itself may have elections, and some sort of leadership transition in Palestine also seems likely. If a concert of key stakeholders from the G7 and Arab states were to announce a broad and far-sighted diplomatic approach, it would not only fill this dangerous vacuum but also help set the terms of the debate in local elections and leadership transitions by making clear to all of the key partners and stakeholders that their friends and allies are united in their determination to engage in real final status diplomacy. This would strengthen those who support diplomacy and non-violence as a means of achieving peace and security, against those actors who are calling for more bloodshed and tragedy, and whose maximalist agendas are neither viable nor just.
A multilateral approach is also something for which youth in the region have signaled their preference. In a 2023 study, when offered various options about the role of the US and other countries, the largest percentage of Israelis and Palestinians chose the response that ‘the US and other countries should all be involved, working together to advance peace,’ including 37 per cent of Palestinians and 45 per cent of Israelis.
Civil society first, rather than last
Nobody is arguing that a final status deal is imminent. And it is clear that a range of issues – such as reconstruction, security arrangements and governance – will demand time and attention in the immediate aftermath of this terrible war. Yet civil society is the one vertical within a broader conflict resolution project that is not dependent on those variables. Too often, this work is seen as an afterthought. Something haphazardly grafted onto a diplomatic project that has been conducted secretly at the last minute, as was the case after Oslo. Or else something to be invested in when a diplomatic process has collapsed, to help avert bloodshed. Instead, it must be a foundational element, one of the earliest priorities that is deeply rooted providing ballast and legitimacy to any diplomatic process that later follows.
Precedents for such an approach exist. In Northern Ireland, itself shattered by decades of sectarian violence, the international community came together in 1986 to create the International Fund for Ireland (IFI). It went on to invest and leverage over £2bn in support for peacebuilding priorities, in what Tony Blair’s Chief Negotiator Jonathan Powell called the ‘great unsung hero’ of the Good Friday Agreement that emerged twelve years later. The leaders, ideas and trust that the IFI built became a central pillar in achieving and consolidating peace.
The same must be done for Israelis and Palestinians. There are hundreds of organisations, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis, working tirelessly to support their communities. Groups like Parents Circle-Families Forum, a collective of more than 600 families who have lost an immediate loved one to the conflict, are working to center reconciliation, dialogue, and public education on the dire consequences and heavy price of war being paid so greatly by Israeli and Palestinian families. We have just seen more families torn apart by bereavement in the last few months than the last five decades combined. Many of them – like Maoz and Magen Inon, whose parents were murdered on 7 October – have already decided to dedicate their lives to resolving this conflict. Or Combatants for Peace, a group of former-IDF soldiers and Palestinian militants who recognised the futility and injustice of such violence and now work non-violently together to shape a more just and peaceful reality. Or The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, who bring together Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and internationals for a college semester to learn about shared environmental challenges, the cost of conflict on the environment, fresh water access, climate change and more. These are the voices and efforts that must be supported, amplified, and multiplied moving forward. Israeli-Palestinian civil society is vibrant, creative and dedicated. But it is chronically under-resourced. ALLMEP has over 160 member organisations. Yet over 60 per cent of them have budgets of less than £400,000 and fewer than five members of staff.
The simple truth is that the international community has not prioritised this work. Billions of dollars flood into Israel and Palestine every year, but the vast bulk of it is either aimed at sustaining the status quo, or indeed on deepening the conflict. Once again, compare our approach in Israel-Palestine to what we undertook in Northern Ireland. Where the international community did not just start early with civil society peacebuilding, twelve years before the Good Friday Agreement. It also operated at a tremendous scale, investing around $44 per person year-on-year for two decades toward such programs; in Israel-Palestine, it is $3 per person. Likewise, in Northern Ireland, 30 per cent of residents reported having a positive substantial encounter with a member of the other side. In Israel-Palestine, it’s less than 4 per cent.
There is an urgent need right now to coordinate, strategically deploy, and maximise available resources in the face of this escalating crisis. The ideal mechanism for this is an institution along the lines of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, a concept endorsed by the UK’s Government and Opposition, and which inspired and led to the passage of the 2020 Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA). However, in the interim and to respond to the appetite, need, and opportunity for strategically aligned states, ALLMEP proposes to convene a International Consortium for Civil Society Peacebuilding (ICCSP). This group would include all donor states who are party to a broader diplomatic process, and/or all those making significant investments in Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding efforts. It can be a truly multilateral project, involving all key stakeholders, including Arab States who have normalised relations with Israel and can now engage in ways that were previously not possible. This must be an integral component of broader reconstruction efforts so that the international community does not only rebuild physical infrastructure to be destroyed in the next round, but also invests deeply in the human infrastructure that will lead toward solving the conflict once and for all.
Governments around the world must be in solidarity with those shaping a more peaceful and just future. Diplomatic strategies should be predicated on scaling, supporting, and strengthening them. The creation of an ICCSP along with the restoration of a diplomatic horizon and clear milestones that demonstrate support for civil society peacebuilding will help demonstrate to the world and to local electorates and stakeholders that a broad array of key states are aligned, coordinated, and already moving beyond words to actions in pursuit of genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace.
By starting with civil society, such a process can secure early ‘wins’ as well as fostering greater coordination among key states on issues that are less divisive than others, and with Israeli and Palestinian stakeholders who are more aligned with this vision and with each other. Focusing on civil society can cement multilateral cooperation, and the mechanism can be retained to reconvene for the subsequent, more difficult political and governance issues that will need to be addressed later. It is solidarity movements, justice movements, peace movements, that will lay the foundation on which a real diplomatic solution can thrive. After thirty years of failed diplomacy and broken promises, leading now to the greatest tragedy in the history of this conflict: we owe Israelis and Palestinians no less.