Time to re-boot the peace industry – here’s how

By Arik Segal

What is known in Israel as the Israeli “Peace Industry” – a broad reference to civil society organizations and individuals working to advance peace – is facing some tough challenges in 2012 and 2013.

The possibility of a preemptive Israeli attack on Iran, political and economic developments in Europe that will make it less supportive of peace-building initiatives, and the next general elections in Israel which seem likely to affirm Likud’s leadership, will make peace seem so remote that the work of peace organizations could lose relevance.

Despite working on the level of civil society, peace-promoting NGOs are directly influenced by the will of the decision makers. Another right-wing dominated Knesset could put more pressure on NGOs and foundations, following the lead of current Knesset in its attempt to adopt the NGO-funding law, which sought to restrict funding to left-wing NGOs.  Moreover, the rise of conservatism in Europe and a possible Republican victory in Washington in 2012 would weaken them too. And the predicted economic downturn in Europe could also entail financial and political strains on the European bodies who fund many Israeli peace NGOs. Finally, if Israel attacks Iran and a regional war erupts, it will be almost impossible to promote grassroots conflict resolution models among the Israeli public, whose faith in peace has almost vanished already.

If this analysis is correct, then pro-peace NGOs have a short window of time remaining to revise and reshape their existing work plans to anticipate the situation. In this context, we can consider three main steps that could help boost their effectiveness under the likely constraints.

1. Change the target group: Focus on Israel

Build campaigns that target the Israeli public. The Israeli-Palestinian people-to-people initiatives have not proven to have any real positive effect on the conflict, and recently they encounter even greater difficulties due to the “anti-normalization” trend – many Palestinians are now encouraging a boycott of such activities, claiming they normalize, rather than end, the occupation. It is more expensive and less effective to get liberal-minded Israelis and Palestinians to engage in a mutual outcry somewhere in Europe, than to organize the same discussion between Israelis from all the full range of society right here at home. An internal dialogue between Israelis is crucial in order to diminish negative stereotypes about the left and right and create more understanding about what kind of a future the Israeli public wishes for itself.

2. Change the message:

Public opinion polls show that a large majority of Israelis (+70%) support the two-state solution. However at the same time, some of those people vote for right-wing parties which continue to grow in strength. I believe that many Israelis think liberally but vote and act differently, due to poor information about the left’s political agenda and because of the way that the Israeli left is perceived: weak, arrogant and “detached from reality” – an image which is not very appealing in a militaristic society.

This is where peace organizations should step in and work to tackle this by designing campaigns that aim not to advocate a political agenda but to explain it. A clear understanding of the values and interests that each liberal party stands for could increase their support by dispelling misconceptions and stereotypes, especially in times of social protest, when a liberal social agenda is more popular and many feel that change is at hand. In this respect, emphasizing the difference between the right-wing conflict-management approach and the left-wing conflict-resolution approach will be essential.

In addition, peace groups could brush off their image as remote, by being more open to other opinions they do not necessarily concur with. To reach larger segments of Israeli society, they should refrain from branding those who do not agree with them as “ignorant” or “fascist” and show more understanding for the origins of their beliefs.

3. Work together:

Most of the pro-peace organizations share the same goals, activities and difficulties. Overcoming those difficulties and increasing support could be easier with cooperation. Peace groups should let go of some personal ego and prestige which has so often kept so many of them working separately, and share resources, experience and capacities.

Looking at the half-full part of the cup, the challenges and changes occurring in the international arena can provide new opportunities as well. Today more than ever, the will of the people can have a bigger impact on decision makers and on states’ foreign policies. For the peace-building community, the rise in people power should become a great advantage for achieving its goal.

Arik Segal is a conflict management consultant at Segal Conflict Management. He initiates and directs track two and track three diplomacy initiatives between Israel and its neighbors.