Obama's Peace Assets in the Middle East

07/22/2013 02:33 pm ET | Updated Sep 21, 2013

Conventional wisdom says this is not the time to forge a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Conventional wisdom also says we have passed midnight for a two state solution; unconventional wisdom says clocks can be pushed back.

Since the start of the President Barack Obama's second term, the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have been focusing time and effort to end this decades-long conflict. Precisely because things are so uncertain and bleak in that region, this is the time to address the conflict.

The Arab Spring, as we see again in Egypt, has created its own long volatile season which may take decades to return to a calmer and hopefully more democratic and consistent climate. It is only a matter of time before the bloody and messy civil war in Syria puts further pressure on the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and then easily spills over into the Palestinian territories and Israel. An oasis of relative calm and stability remains in Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. We must assure those entities are not swallowed up by the tumult of their neighborhood. A key ingredient for that cohesion to hold is an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

An asset that has been underutilized in the administration are the scores and scores of civil society people to people (P2P) programs that forge productive relationships between Israelis and Palestinians.

These programs, many of them funded by U.S. tax payers through USAID, produce tangible real-world examples of what is possible.

The president, from his background as a community organizer and how his campaigns have been run, clearly understands the power of grassroots activities. That insight needs to be translated into the negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

There are many factors that have prevented an agreement from being reached over the years. Fear and paralysis can trap negotiators with even the best of intentions, who have an inclination to focus more on what may go wrong, which does need to be addressed, at the expense of the positive outcomes an agreement can produce.

The negotiators need to be reminded of what is possible.

To address this holding back of imagination, the president should invite Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas to a roundtable of representatives of Palestinian and Israel P2P programs. There they will hear from the likes of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, the Parents Circle, PeacePlayers, the Search for Common Ground, the Jerusalem YMCA, Kids4Peace and countless other organizations who day in, day out build long-term bonds and dependence between Palestinians and Israelis.

Secretary of State Kerry should lead a Peace is Possible Tour for the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators so they can see firsthand the transformative bridgebuilding work of these partnerships.

The other arena where the Israeli and Palestinian P2P programs can become a more effective tool for the president is for the president to announce support of the establishment of the International Fund for Israeli Palestinian Peace. The Fund is modeled after the International Fund for Ireland that was created before the Good Friday Agreement and helped bring into existence the right conditions for that Agreement.

The president was reminded of the importance of International Fund for Ireland during his recent trip to Ireland, where he spoke about the lasting and transformative effect of the Good Friday Agreement and how integral the International Fund for Ireland was in holding the Good Friday Agreement in place, even when there have been hiccups along the way.

The International Fund for Israeli Palestinian Peace will allow Palestinian and Israeli P2P programs to expand and become more the normative way that Israelis and Palestinians interact. Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of Palestinians and Israelis support peace but are unsure there is someone on the other side. They need to be strengthened in their convictions by letting them know they are not alone within their community as well as across the divide. Hearing more about Israelis and Palestinians who have been changed by meeting and working with the other and the sincere friendships that have come out of those encounters will strengthen their resolve.

When a peace agreement is reached there will be immense, including violent, push-back from those opposed to an agreement. For that agreement to have any chance to succeed, those who support peace must be fortified. A key way to achieve that is for President Obama to make the work of the Palestinian and Israeli P2P efforts more pronounced in the negotiating track and by supporting the International Fund for Israeli Palestinian Peace.

It was Hubert H. Humphrey who reminded us, "Peace is not passive, it is active; peace is not appeasement, it is strength; peace does not happen, it requires work."

The Israeli and Palestinian P2P organizations are doing that work and are an asset the president should use in his efforts to bring about an Israeli Palestinian peace treaty.

The author, a rabbi, is chairman of the Congressional Policy Committee of the Alliance for Middle East Peace.

This piece first appeared in the Jerusalem Post July 17, 2013