On Israel-Palestine, don’t ignore grassroots efforts at peace

18 March 2024, 1039 EDT

I recently submitted the below letter to Foreign Affairs in response to their latest issue’s set of essays on Israel-Palestine peace. They decided not to run it, and I assume that’s because of all the letters they get. However, I worry that we ignore the small-scale peace efforts that may be the best way to advance peace (or see them as problematic) so I wanted to post it here and try to make the case for them.

My letter to Foreign Affairs

To the editor,

            I commend Foreign Affairs for the set of essays in the March/April 2024 issue exploring whether and how peace is still possible between Israel and Palestine. The authors all presented convincing and contrasting views on this crucial topic. However, I worry they overlooked a crucial element of this issue that is the only remaining path to peace: grassroots interfaith efforts. Those who were more skeptical of a continued peace process downplay the continued desire for peace in the region. At the same time, those who were more optimistic about the chances for a formal peace process need to pay more attention to the catalyzing role grassroots initiatives can play.

            Lynch and Telhami are right to question the likelihood of a formal peace process moving towards a two-state solution. They are equally valid in raising concerns that calls for a renewed peace process distracts policymakers from dealing with the immediate suffering on the ground. But they are incorrect to claim there is no appetite for peace. The fact that US and Qatar-driven efforts to negotiate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas have not collapsed indicates the two sides want to resolve this. The fact that Qatar is still attempting to serve as a mediator, and Saudi Arabia is still pursuing normalization with Israel, are further indications. Additionally, the recent call by Oman’s Foreign Minister for an emergency peace conference in The Economist indicates there is broadening recognition in the region of the need for peace.

            The essays by Martin Indyk  and Dalia Kaye and Sanam Vakil, on the other hand, are right to note that there is a continued desire for a formal peace process and that regional actors must play a major part in any such process. Yet, they ignore the difficulty in moving from a general desire towards concrete progress. Some of this comes from the fact, as Lynch and Telhami note, that opinions about peace have hardened among both the Israeli and Palestinian populations. It is also because there is no dominant actor in the region as there was during earlier peace breakthroughs; the United States is distracted by internal divisions and a rising China, while no regional state commands sufficiently broad respect to push through a peace agreement.

            A corrective to both issues would be greater attention to grassroots interfaith peace efforts. While they gain less attention to persistent violence and tentative formal peace processes, these initiatives do exist and they matter. In Wahat al-Salaam/Neve Shalom—an experimental community in Israel, Arab and Jewish Israelis live and learn together peacefully. The Haifa Laboratory for Religious Studies draws on its religiously diverse location to promote interfaith dialogue and research to highlight religion’s potential to contribute to peace. The Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue brings together Jewish and Muslim voices to promote understanding. Israeli and Palestinian women have worked together to advance interfaith understanding and peace in Jerusalem.

            These grassroots interfaith efforts could be the needed catalyst for a more formal peace process. If expanded, they could create a constituency among Israelis and Palestinians for a peace agreement. They can also demonstrate the viability of an agreement that—whatever its form—would require peaceful coexistence. Even if they do not lead to a Camp David III, they still matter. True peace is built by small-scale, personal encounters, the kind produced by these initiatives.

            I understand some may be skeptical about these initiatives. How can anything so small succeed when grand international peace conferences fail? And some may even see them as a negative, distracting people from the horrors of the situation. But every other instance in which religious distrust and hatred gave way to peace has involved long, careful interactions across religious differences; world leaders cannot do this, the people need to take the lead.