Michael Cohen
The Christian Science Monitor (Opinion)
November 17, 2011 - 1:00am

Edmund Burke famously said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” The Arab-Israeli conflict, steeped in history, is a case in point. A major piece of US Middle East policy presents a clear example of history being forgotten, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent statehood bid at the United Nations serves as an example of history being remembered.

If 90 years ago someone had said that England, France, and Germany would become the strongest of allies with integrated economies, he would have been laughed out of the room. Forty years later that impossible vision had become a reality. It was made possible because a lesson of history was not lost; the mistake made after World War I of severely punishing Germany through the Treaty of Versailles was not repeated after World War II. Rather Germany was allowed to rebuild both economically and politically.

In addition, through the brilliance of the European Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan, the countries of Europe moved toward integration. With the exception of the Balkan wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia, that integration has led to a period of peace in Europe that has not been seen for centuries. One of the key ingredients to that success has been that nations were pushed to work with each other in various endeavors and formats, and in the process relationships were forged.

That lesson has been lost on successive US administrations as billions and billions of taxpayers dollars have been invested in the separate economies of Egypt, Israel, and Jordan – much of it directed toward military aid. While these dollars were intended to bolster the Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaties of 1979 and 1994, they failed to do so.

Neither aid for separate economies or militaries strengthens peace. The weakening of these two peace treaties in the wake of the Arab Spring has happened in large part because those billions of dollars in US aid did nothing to bring Israelis and their Jordanian and Egyptian neighbors together.

To rectify this poor investment of foreign aid, the United States needs to reevaluate where it directs these billions. To support lasting peace in the region and the kind of relations the US had hoped to foster between aid recipients, it would be wise to take some of these funds and reallocate them toward economic projects between Israel, and Jordan and Egypt. In addition, funding for the United States Agency for International Development's Middle East Regional Cooperation Program and USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation should be increased.

Finally, the US should take the lead in establishing an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace as advocated by the Alliance for Middle East Peace. This fund, especially with US support, would create better on-the-ground conditions necessary for bringing about a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. To do this, the fund would bolster the actions of the Israeli and Palestinian people-to-people nongovernmental organizations that work to create touch points of meeting and cooperation for people in both the Israeli and Palestinian communities. I work for one of those organizations: the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which prepares future Arab and Jewish leaders to solve the region’s environmental challenges.

One recent example highlights the important role these NGOs have to play in the region: Gershon Baskin, of The Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, played a key role in negotiating the Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange, which saw the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Because of his organization’s grassroots work within both Israeli and Palestinian communities, Mr. Baskin was uniquely qualified to act as the conduit between Hamas and the Israeli government.

Meanwhile, Mr. Abbas has come under a lot of criticism by the US and a number of European countries for taking the issue of Palestinian statehood to the United Nations earlier this fall. With the subsequent United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's vote to admit Palestine to its organization, the US has said it will not pay the $60 million this month it had previously committed to UNESCO. If the US decides to go through with withholding the funds, it will only isolate America further from much of the world community and do absolutely nothing for the peace process.

If the aim really is to support lasting peace and pave the way for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, the US could at least use the $60 million originally designated for UNESCO to fund USAID peacebuilding and development programs and the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.


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