LFI director Michael Rubin: How a Labour Government could advance peace in the Middle East

LFI director Michael Rubin has written the below article for JewishNews. Click here to read the original.

Amid the horror in Israel and Gaza over the past seven months, there have been few causes for hope and optimism.

While President Biden’s credible and constructive plan for the future is much needed, any new diplomatic effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inevitably treated with caution given the failure of previous peace processes over the past three decades.

As LFI (Labour Friends of Israel) outlines in a new paper by John Lyndon published this week, it is therefore crucial to learn from what has worked successfully elsewhere.

The key lesson from Northern Ireland, Columbia and South Africa is the need to build a broader, deeper process which places grassroots, civic society peacebuilding at the core of a new strategy for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In each of these instances, it had a vital impact on both the attitudes and political context which are the oxygen that real peace processes depend upon; proved critical for societal resilience; transformed the political incentives within conflicted societies, creating constituencies – and indeed leaders – who support peace and reconciliation; developed many of the ideas that leaders ultimately borrowed and presented as their own; and helped to create a counterweight to the spoilers that exist in every conflict.

Jonathan Powell, the UK’s chief negotiator, has rightly labelled the International Fund for Ireland “the great unsung” of the Good Friday Agreement. Established during the darkest days of The Troubles in the mid-1980s – over a decade before the 1998 agreement – the IFI began its work at a moment that elicited similar levels of pessimism and despair to that which we have seen in Israel and Palestine in recent years.

Through an unprecedented $1.5bn in direct funding and $2.4bn overall – a haul amassed from combining multiple donations from the US, the EU, UK and the Commonwealth – the IFI engaged in a sustained, long-term effort to build relationships, economic development, interdependencies and trust between unionists and nationalists.

Funding more than 6,000 peacebuilding projects, the IFI transformed the civic landscape. Participation in these programmes eventually became a rite of passage for young Catholics and Protestants.

The Oslo Accords, which occurred at a roughly similar time, were, like the Good Friday Agreement, essentially an interim agreement. But, unlike in Northern Ireland, Oslo appeared out of nowhere, with no civic preparation or grassroots capacity ready to sustain it.

And while there is a network of peacebuilding projects – encompassing tech, the environment, health and young people – in Israel-Palestine, they have received nowhere near the funding the international community expended in Northern Ireland. In the case of the latter, this translated into more than $44 per person per year, compared with around $3 in Israel-Palestine.

Despite their lack of funding and scale, we know from rigorous academic studies that peacebuilding projects in Israel-Palestine work: chipping away at participants’ negative attitudes, and bolstering those, such as trust and a willingness to work with “the other side”, which are needed to underpin a successful political process.

Inspired by the IFI, and pioneered by the Alliance for Middle East Peace, there is now a huge opportunity for the creation of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace – an initiative bolstered by the success of the bipartisan 2020 US Middle East Partnership for Peace Act which is now investing an unprecedented $250m in peacebuilding work.

Under Keir Starmer, who has endorsed an International Fund, a Labour government could make the realm of civil society its priority, and position the UK as the leading voice, convener and architect for civil society in the region, placing this agenda at the core of a wider diplomatic process, alongside its closest allies.

Upon taking office, a Labour government could take a leading role in bringing together allies to establish a mechanism aimed at effectively pooling and strategically coordinating the combined strengths, resources, and legitimacy of a collaborative effort involving the US and other members of the G7, EU, and the Arab League.

David Lammy, who has also backed the fund, could announce that he would invite this broad and inclusive group of countries for an inaugural meeting in London, within the first 100 days of Labour taking office, to map and coordinate support for civil society in the region as part of restoring a diplomatic horizon for Israelis and Palestinians.

Setting up the International Fund as an institution need not be the first priority. Instead, a more informal working group – which would be easy to assemble, could start its work immediately, and could later be formalised into something more permanent – could be the first, eminently achievable, goal within Labour’s first 100 days in government.

Such a vision and ambition would be a worthy and fitting heir to the last Labour government’s early and pivotal efforts in Northern Ireland.