Opinion

US and Israel haven't learned their history lessons. Palestinians and Abbas have.

Billions in US aid dollars to individual economies and militaries in the Middle East have not strengthened peace. The success of post-war Europe shows the key to unity is to get citizens of different nations to work together. That hasn't really happened with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.

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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.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the Republican chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, is withholding $192 million in humanitarian and infrastructure aid to the Palestinians. The funds were previously committed for nongovernmental groups working on state-building and economic development projects, most of which are overseen by USAID. Palestinians working peacefully to build infrastructure are facing layoffs and offices are threatened with closure. This punitive action, too, does nothing to advance the peace process.

While the US and some others may be angry with the Palestinians for pursuing statehood recognition at the UN, it would be wise to pause and understand why Abbas is doing this.

For all intents and purposes, the peace process has gone nowhere for years in spite of the efforts of nations in the "Quartet." Over the decades, movement forward on the peace process has most often taken place only after something shook things up.

The 1990-91 Persian Gulf War led directly to the Madrid Conference in 1991, which led to the Oslo Accords in 1993, which led to the 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty. Similarly, the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty was a direct result of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Many have speculated that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s goal in the 1973 confrontation was not to defeat Israel, but only to shake things up by gaining a foothold on the western bank of the Suez Canal.

Abbas, perhaps remembering these history lessons, apparently came to the conclusion that the status quo needed to be shaken up. To his credit he did not chose a violent option for this action. Abbas’s goal of going to the UN was to peacefully shake things up. History also teaches that such a decision should be not be so easily dismissed.

Rabbi Michael M. Cohen is the author of “Einstein’s Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul” and works for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.

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