WASHINGTON - In the absence of any meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the horizon, two U.S. Congress members presented on Tuesday new legislation to increase American and international support for grassroots and people-to-people initiatives connecting Israelis and Palestinians. The members, Republican Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Democrat Joe Crowley (D-NY,) hope that such initiatives will lay the foundations for future reconciliation, despite the current diplomatic stalemate in the region.
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The proposed bill calls for the establishment of an international fund that will focus on people-to-people connections, economic cooperation and grassroots engagement between Israelis and Palestinians as a means for advancing peace between the two nations.
Rep. Fortenberry, a Republican who has been representing Nebraska's first district since 2005, said in a statement: "Despite the difficulties and challenges involved in bringing about secure and sustainable peace in the Middle East, the United States has made strong bipartisan efforts over decades to help achieve this important objective." He added that the U.S. must "continue to foster relevant and constructive dialogue among Israeli and Palestinian communities. It is my hope that grassroots reconciliation efforts, however small, may spark renewed hope for a future built on peace and prosperity."
Rep. Crowley, the Democratic co-sponsor of the bill and the current chair of the House Democratic Caucus, added: "By engaging everyday people and seeking grassroots cooperation and reconciliation, we will help ensure that any future agreements are sustainable. This kind of work can be an antidote to terrorism because it gives people who want to work together toward reconciliation a path to do so."
The notion that people-to-people, grassroots connections between Israelis and Palestinians might be a more effective way of advancing peace at this moment in time, than another round of futile negotiations, was recognized to a certain extent in the most recent report of the international Quartet (a body devoted to Middle East peace which includes representatives from the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.) The report stated that both parties should work to "foster a climate of tolerance, including through increasing interaction and cooperation in a variety of fields – economic, professional, educational, cultural – that strengthen the foundations for peace and countering extremism." The new legislation proposed by Reps. Fortenberry and Crowley offers a financial mechanism to support such efforts.
The legislation received endorsements from a number of leading Jewish organizations in the U.S., including the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Anti-Defamation League. Julie Rayman Director of Political Affairs of the American Jewish Committee said that "Initiatives such as the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace provide an opportunity for the United States to further contribute to peace-building between Israelis and Palestinians on the people-to-people level."
William Daroff, the Senior Vice President for Public Policy at the Jewish Federations, said that his organizations "welcomes and supports the introduction of this legislation to enact and fund an International Fund for Israeli Palestinian Peace. We urge members of Congress to help those on the ground looking for peace to get behind this initiative."
The Alliance for Middle East Peace, a coalition of over 100 different people-to-people organizations working on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian territories, applauded the new legislation. The group's executive director, Joel Braunold, said on Tuesday: "As the new administration begins the hard work of Middle East peacemaking, one of the consequences from previous failures has been an incredulity gap that now exists between the two peoples. If this cannot be bridged, Israelis and Palestinians will continue to drift further apart, making any deal politically impossible for the parties to sign. Mr. Fortenberry and Mr. Crowley’s initiative establishes a tried and tested institutional approach to ensure that the populations move their leaders closer together, rather than drive them further apart."