WASHINGTON – A Congress sub-committee on State and Foreign Operations voted this week to include in its budget for the upcoming fiscal year a bill that would devote tens of millions of dollars to promote cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians.
The legislation to create a “Partnership Fund for Peace” that will support Palestinian economic projects and organizations that promote Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and coexistence was introduced to Congress last year. It is led by House members Nita Lowey and Jeff Fortenberry and senators Tim Kaine, Lindsey Graham, Chris Coons and Corey Gardner. It is expected to gain the approval of the House Committee on Appropriations on Thursday.
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The bill aims to promote “joint economic development and finance ventures between Palestinian entrepreneurs and companies and those in the United States and Israel to improve economic cooperation and people-to-people peace-building programs, and to further shared community building, peaceful coexistence, dialogue, and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.”
The proposed fund would work under the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department. One of the aims of the fund is “To improve the quality of life, stimulate the economy, and advance security by creating private sector jobs for Palestinians in the Palestinian territories and furthering the development of a Palestinian middle class.”
Another major goal of the initiative is to support Israeli, Palestinian and international nongovernmental organizations that “Bring Palestinians and Israelis together for shared community building, peaceful coexistence, dialogue, and reconciliation.” Organizations that promote coexistence within Israel itself, between the country’s Arab and Jewish citizens, would also be eligible to receive financial support from the fund.
The fund has become a rare issue of consensus among leading Jewish American organizations, winning support and praise from both AIPAC and J Street, as well as from the Jewish Federations of North America, the Anti-Defamation League, Americans for Peace Now and American Jewish Committee. These organizations, as well as others in the Jewish community, have publicly expressed their support for the initiative.
AIPAC addressed the proposed legislation on Tuesday, writing on its official Twitter account: “Congress is advancing bipartisan legislation to build economic partnerships between Israelis, Palestinians and Americans.” The influential pro-Israel lobby group also thanked Lowey, Fortenberry, Coons and Graham for promoting the fund.
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J Street also praised the legislation on Twitter, linking its promotion by Congress to the fact that the Trump administration in recent years had cut all forms of U.S. aid to the Palestinians, including funding for cancer treatments, eye surgeries and sports activities that bring together Israeli and Palestinian children. “Following unconscionable cuts to Israeli-Palestinian people-to-people programs by the Trump administration, [it is] heartening to see Congress advancing the Middle East Partnerships for Peace Act,” the organization stated.
The Alliance for Middle East Peace, an umbrella organization of groups working in Israel and the Palestinian territories, has spent more than two years pushing for the legislation to win broad support in Congress. The organization thanked Lowey and Fortenberry on Monday for their work to promote the bill.
The peace fund is seen on Capitol Hill as part of Lowey’s legacy ahead of her retirement from Congress this year after 16 terms in office. During her decades in Washington, Lowey was considered a strong supporter of Israel and a prominent voice for the Jewish community. Ensuring tens of millions of dollars to support coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians is one of the last Israel-related initiatives she will get to promote before retiring.
Dan Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel under the Obama administration, wrote on Tuesday that “Once enacted, [the fund] needs to be called the ‘Nita Lowey Middle East Peace Partnership Fund’”. Shapiro explained that “As recognition of her extraordinary contributions to the US-Israel relationship and the cause of Middle East peace, this program, a fine legacy, should be named in her honor.”
Joel Braunold, executive director of the Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and a former executive director at the Alliance for Middle East Peace, told Haaretz that Lowey “was the champion for the original people-to-people grant programs and now, working with Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, her legacy is an endowment for the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians.”
The peace fund is completely separate from the Trump administration’s Middle East plan, which was publicly presented in January and was immediately rejected by the Palestinians, while gaining no official response from the Israeli government.