US President Donald Trump played with fire in the Middle East when he announced his country would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and he seemed to know it. The reaction, at least, cannot have surprised him. Protests rippled from the streets of the occupied West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza through to Jakarta and Karachi but also Chicago and Tokyo. Israel launched air raids while the political leaders of the Muslim world declared the decision “null and void.”
Rhetorically, at least, the response was violent. A hastily-organised Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Istanbul captured the widespread outrage with Turkey’s President Erdogan declaring Israel “an occupying state, and at the same time…a terrorist state.” Hamas went even further, saying that Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem “opens the gates of hell.” On the ground, though, Trump did not unleash quite the firestorm he (and Benjamin Netanyahu) may have been anticipating. Instead, the general feeling is that a bullet has been dodged and that the blowback in the occupied territories has been milder than expected.
Most explanations for this point to fatigue on the Palestinian side, but the universal global condemnation of Trump’s move may also have something to do with it. The imagery of Ambassador Nikki Haley standing alone to veto an otherwise unanimous Security Council resolution against the United States offered a powerful display of solidarity to frustrated Palestinians who may have otherwise felt abandoned.
When the dust eventually settles, Trump’s Jerusalem decision may even yield unexpected benefits. How? By strengthening the civic initiatives that have worked for decades to bridge divides while negotiations surrounding the peace process have remained stuck at the diplomatic level and held hostage by domestic political interests in Washington.
Trump has now effectively ceded America’s role as “honest broker” in the talks.While plenty of ink has already been spilled, one of the most productive ways to channel the near-universal international opposition to this bullish mischief-making would be to support (politically, financially, and morally) the civil society efforts working tirelessly in spite of opposition from hardliners on all sides.
There are many great examples to choose from. The UNESCO-backed Aladdin Project, for example, has spent the last ten years addressing interfaith tensions between Jews and Muslims across the Middle East. The project brings people together with its guiding belief that knowledge, education, and the primacy of history and moral values can vanquish the chasms created by ignorance, prejudice, hate and competing memories.
That work has been bolstered by key backers such as Saudi-Austrian philanthropist Sheikh Mohamed bin Issa Al Jaber, who received the Aladdin Project’s 2017 “Dialogue of Cultures” award in Paris for his “visionary leadership to promote intercultural dialogue based on universal values” and his “decades-long campaign for meaningful educational reform in the Arab world and beyond.”
Al Jaber’s universalist approach to cultural dialogue and tolerance in the Arab world has long set himself apart from other leading Saudi figures. Fortunately, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s promises of a return to moderate Islam and efforts to rein in hardline clerics shows his country is catching up to that example.
May other initiatives are more local in character. The Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives (IPCRI) is a non-profit think tank founded by leading activist Gershon Baskin almost 30 years ago to “engage policymakers and the public and large in ending the occupation and promoting a just and sustainable solution to the conflict.” Within Israel, the Sikkuy movement wants to establish equality (a fundamental requirement for true democracy) between all Israeli citizens, whatever their background.
All of these initiatives recognize that true religious tolerance means going beyond initiatives that distil people down to being “Jews and Muslims” or “Israelis and Arabs.” Embracing humanist values of equality on all sides (and within each community) is a far more sustainable way of fostering acceptance and rejecting polarized narratives.
Educators are on the front line in advocating this shift. Mixed schools such as those run by Kibbutzim College are slowly gaining momentum. Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, a former guerilla for the Palestine Liberation Organization who was banned from Israel for 25 years because of his prominent role in Fatah, founded a group named Wasatia ( “moderation”) in 2007 to promote Islamic traditions of compromise and nonviolence. In 2014, he began teaching Palestinians at universities in the West Bank about the Holocaust, even taking students on a trip to Birkenau. Next year, Israeli organisation Givat Haviva will open a school for Israeli, Palestinian and other Middle Eastern and world students in the hope that studying together will stop both Israelis and Palestinians “othering” the other side.
These are all good examples of initiatives and individuals working towards peace in Israel and Palestine, but they cannot shift the mass of public opinion on either side of the West Side Barrier without help. The grass grows greenest where you water it.
While “peace in the Middle East” is more often used as an oxymoron, other “intractable” conflicts like Northern Ireland show us that nothing is impossible. Earlier this year, independent British think tank BICOM and the Israel’s Fathom group drew on some of those lessons to explain why grassroots peacebuilding projects constitute a “vital missing ingredient” in the Israel-Palestine peace process.
With politicians showing scant inclination to work seriously for a peaceful resolution, it is time for those inside the region and out who are committed to peace to start funding the projects that give power back to people on the ground. UN resolutions are well and good, but education and civic education are far better.
*Khaled Alaswad is a Jordanian-born risk management consultant who has been working out of Abu Dhabi, UAE for the past five years. Before that, he lived in Michigan in the United States while completing his degree in public policy and subsequently worked in Amman and Beirut before moving to the Emirates. His work has previously been published on Middle East Monitor and Your Middle East.