heard yesterday

U.S. seeks to expand international support for peacebuilding in Israel, Palestinian territories

USAID administrator Samantha Power said Thursday she finds it ‘disappointing’ Gulf states don’t support humanitarian aid more strongly

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Samantha Power administrator of USAID addresses representatives of civil society organizations.

A U.S. program designed to support Israeli and Palestinian civil society represents “the largest single contribution any country has ever made to grassroots peacebuilding efforts between Israelis and Palestinians,” USAID Administrator Samantha Power said on Thursday at a meeting of the Partnership for Peace Fund Advisory Board. 

The meeting marked one year since the implementation of the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA), which allocated $250 million over five years to support organizations in Israel and the Palestinian territories. USAID’s Partnership for Peace Fund awarded its first grants in March, and has since given funding to 10 organizations working to bridge ties between Israelis and Palestinians. 

The grants “are, among other things, training women entrepreneurs, building bridges between trade associations, supporting youth-led startups, bringing together Palestinian and Israeli medical professionals, developing low-cost products for the elderly and disabled and connecting water scientists to create new joint water models,” said Amy Tohill-Stull, USAID West Bank and Gaza mission director. “All of these activities are designed to enhance connection and relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as result in a tangible development impact.”

The program received 166 applications in its first year, which disproportionately came from Israelis. Three dozen applicants were based in the U.S., 111 were Israeli and 21 were Palestinian. 

“Some of the challenges that we’re already seeing, you know, around the stigma, which I’d love the board to engage on at some point, the disparities [Tohill-Stull] flagged at the end between the number of applicants,” said Power. “That gets at probably some trust issues, but also some capacity issues.”

Board members, who offer counsel to USAID officials but do not make decisions about grant recipients, include a broad, bipartisan cross-spectrum of Middle East experts and policymakers. The advisory board is chaired by George Salem, a Palestinian-American who served in the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. 

“It’s extremely satisfying to see such a diverse group of serious individuals sit around to put a focus on bottom-up peacebuilding in a bipartisan way. It just doesn’t happen anywhere else in our system, and it should be a precedent-setting way to get real voices from both parties to sit, talk and learn together,” said Joel Braunold, managing director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

When discussing MEPPA’s future, Power called for other countries to contribute to peacebuilding efforts — particularly, she argued, as global support for humanitarian work has not kept up with the deep needs in many parts of the world. 

“The donor resources for development and humanitarian assistance are at best flat, and one part of the world that has been very — just in the confines of this room — but very disappointing, you know, are those in fact who have done relatively well with fuel prices going up, and, you know, that would be countries in the Gulf that have relationships now, mercifully and wonderfully, on both sides,” Power said, referring to the Gulf nations that normalized relations with Israel two years ago. 

Salem, who recently returned from a trip to the region, said he heard strong interest from Gulf countries.

“I had conversations in the UAE, in Saudi Arabia and in Qatar, and everyone’s interested,” he said at the meeting, which was held at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. “Everyone wants to get involved, because it’s helping the Palestinian people, and helping the Palestinians and Israelis work together to create a two-state solution.”

John Lyndon, executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, told Jewish Insider that the most exciting part of the meeting was “the recognition of the game-changing potential of leveraging MEPPA internationally.” ALLMEP,  a coalition of more than 150 grassroots organizations building ties between Israelis and Palestinians, was a vocal advocate for MEPPA’s passage. 

The $250 million in U.S. funding could “catalyze a broad, U.S.-led strategy that multiplies its impact many times over, harnesses the close cooperation between Europe and the US that the tragedy in Ukraine has accelerated, as well as the new opportunities that the Abraham Accords are creating to create an approach to peacebuilding that has the breadth and ambition to truly move the needle,” Lyndon said. 

Other countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, have also expressed interest in MEPPA, and Power questioned how best to convince them to invest in similar projects. 

“We are creating proof of concept here,” said Power. “It is a bandwagon I think that people will want to get onto, not least because I think things feel so stuck, you know, in the more high-profile ways in which these issues have been engaged.”