Labour Friends of Israel is committed to building the civic society foundations for a two-state solution and a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The tragic war between Israel and Hamas which followed the Hamas massacre of 7 October has laid to rest the notion that this decades-old conflict can somehow be “managed” and a brittle status quo – interspersed with outbreaks of violence – maintained.

But any future diplomatic moves to finally resolve the conflict need to be cognisant of past, failed attempts and successful initiatives elsewhere.

After the last serious attempt to bring the two sides together collapsed in 2014, the-then US secretary of state, John Kerry, reflected that “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”. Tellingly, Kerry believed that “the deep public scepticism only made it more difficult for them to be able to take risks”.

Alongside a political and economic dimension, any future agreement will need a civic society strand – not as an afterthought, but as an integral part.

The centrality of this work is demonstrated by the Good Friday Agreement.

It is rightly seen as a model – and source of hope – for conflict-resolution throughout the world. But one aspect of the agreement – the “great unsung hero,” in the words of the chief British negotiator, Jonathan Powell – has often been overlooked; not least because its roots stretch back to the darkest days of the Troubles.

Established in 1986, the International Fund for Ireland built deep and broad constituencies for peace in both the nationalist and unionist communities. It played a key role both in securing the ground-breaking 1998 agreement and in sustaining it through all the inevitable challenges and difficulties which followed. As Gary Mason, a Protestant clergyman and founder of Rethinking Conflict, has suggested, it is the “social glue that holds our peace process together”.

While they are very different in many regards, there are also important parallels between the conflict in Ireland and in Israel-Palestine. As in 1980s Ireland, an atmosphere of pessimism, fear and violence, fed by the lack of any meaningful political process, has fed a narrative that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is somehow intractable.

But the experience of Ireland – where the International Fund invested $2.4bn in more than 6,000 grassroots peacebuilding projects designed to build bridges of trust and mutual understanding across the sectarian divide – shows that the status quo can be challenged and changed.

It will, however, require a sustained and focused effort. While the International Fund in Ireland spent $44 per person per year for two decades on such peacebuilding work, a mere $3 is being invested in Israel-Palestine.

The International Fund for Israel-Palestine Peace – a concept devised by the Alliance for Middle East Peace and promoted in the UK by LFI – seeks to fill that gap. It would bring together and leverage investment from the US, Europe and the Arab world – now, thanks to the Abraham Accords, a realistic prospect – to scale-up the important, but grossly underfunded, cross-border coexistence work that is already up and running.

That work – which stretches across environmental, tech, youth and health projects – has been repeatedly shown by academic studies to make a real difference in changing attitudes, fostering empathy and trust, and building crucial “conflict-resolution” values.

However, while it may have a transformative impact at an individual level, a lack of investment has prevented these initiatives from making the kind of community-wide difference that Ireland witnessed. Indeed, while in Northern Ireland, 30 percent of people reported having a positive substantial encounter with a member of “the other side”, in Israel-Palestine, that figure is less than four percent.

The building blocks are already in place. In 2020, in a rare, bipartisan move, the US Congress passed the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act. It is already investing £250m – the largest-ever such investment – over the next five years in peacebuilding work. The legislation is also specifically designed to evolve in a multinational direction if other countries wish to participate.

LFI has been at the forefront of the effort to persuade the UK government to back the establishment of an International Fund and to invest more in peacebuilding initiatives.

In 2017, our former chair, Joan Ryan, introduced a parliamentary bill supporting an International Fund. As the cross-party support it generated showed, there is strong political consensus behind this project – something which is very rare on so contentious a subject as the Middle East.

For Labour, both Keir Starmer and David Lammy have endorsed the idea of a fund – pledging to “help turn it into a concrete reality” – and in 2018 the UK government became the first in the world to offer its support.

Sadly, however, ministers’ warm words haven’t yet been matched by concrete action. Indeed, in 2020 they eliminated the small-scale programme, People for Peaceful Change, which invested in people-to-people work in Israel-Palestine.

LFI believes it’s time to reverse these cuts, commit to new support, and, using our historic links with the region, work with the US, Europe and the Arab world to establish an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.

As a first step, we are backing ALLMEP’s call for the UK government to lead the way in creating an International Consortium for Civic Society Peacebuilding, which would bring together other members of the G7, EU, and the Arab League to map and coordinate support for civil society in the region as part of restoring a diplomatic horizon for Israelis and Palestinians.

As the director of ALLMEP, John Lyndon, has argued: “It is solidarity movements, justice movements, peace movements, that will lay the foundation on which a real diplomatic solution can thrive. After 30 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.”