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A peace that responds to the interests and needs of all parties in the Middle East has gained wide acceptance, despite the many ups and downs of official peace processes seeking to reconcile those differences. Since the 1991 Madrid Conference, an increasingly large number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals have been working together at the regional level to create a better atmosphere for peace. These activities take many forms, yet they all represent efforts to increase mutual understanding and to provide new ways to share information and experiences on topics of common interest. In many cases, they also involve shared projects that lend a relatively small yet increasingly significant counterweight to the pessimistic views on official interactions by leaders and negotiators.
Regional cooperative efforts originate from many different sources, both local and international. Third-party organizations, most often from outside the Middle East, have played an important role by providing venues where experts and like-minded actors can come together to tackle many of the most difficult issues facing both the region as a whole and individual countries. While the ongoing, active participation of those from the Middle East reflects the importance and value attached to the various issues, the presence of outside organizers, who at least initiate the framework in which meetings take place, also reflects the sensitivities and limits of cooperative work.
In addition to providing opportunities for discussion of important regional subjects, non-governmental activities in the Middle East are seen as having multiple effects beyond the actual topics at hand. When participants from different countries meet their peers on a regular basis, a sense of trust and open communication can develop that helps to overcome stereotypes and negative images - in a sense humanizing the "other."

Track II Diplomacy

Some activities dealing with security issues, for example, are intended to provide informal settings in which hypothetical situations may be introduced in a manner that would be impossible in official discussions. These informal discussions - so-called Track II diplomacy - can then be relayed by participants to their governments and may feed into the official processes. More commonly, the workshops, seminars, conferences, training sessions, joint projects, and other activities at the regional level are instrumental in developing networks of common interest and shared experience.
As this issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal reflects, the range of subjects addressed by regional activities is quite broad, encompassing such areas as the environment, security, media, water, civil society, health, development, religion, and others. Although these activities tend not to be highlighted in the media, the benefits derived from them are unmistakable. At the same time, as discussed below, there are limitations to their impact and effectiveness as well.

Benefits

The impact of non-official activities can be beneficial on a number of levels, particularly with regard to the development of empathy and understanding among participants. In a study of the authors' organization, Search for Common Ground, Nathan Funk of the American University in Washington, D.C., has found that sustained Track II efforts in the Middle East have had profound effects on long-term participants.
Funk discovered during his research that the opportunity for the participants to have direct contact with current and former antagonists has catalyzed real changes in their perceptions and attitudes at the personal level. This has led to the establishment of new relationships that have become the vehicle for working together toward common goals and for empowering them to take action within their communities.
Beyond the personal level, non-governmental regional cooperation also provides tangible examples of the benefits of peace to each society. While political leaders may regularly expound their commitments to peace building, the fact that influential people from outside the government are working together for peace - however controversial such a position may be in the short term - provides real alternatives to those who would maintain long-standing patterns of antagonism. In addition, with the possibility for completing final-status peace agreements on the horizon, many perceive an absence of messages that articulate a new era in regional relations. The regional work of NGOs can catalyze the development of a culture of peace to articulate new visions of the future.

Filling a Void

The experience of the Gulf 2000 project, based at Columbia University, provides an excellent example of how trust is established and mutual understanding develops as a result of a non-governmental initiative. Under the direction of Prof. Gary Sick, the project has sought both to create a community of scholars from the Gulf States where none had previously existed, and to provide them (and others) with a forum to exchange information and discuss issues of mutual concern.
The initial meetings to establish the community in 1994-5 brought together a small group of scholars from throughout the Gulf region. In addition to their substantive themes, these meetings also helped the participants overcome regional animosities to create a dialogue of mutual respect based on their shared professional interests. Most significantly, the project has linked this group in an "electronic community" through the Internet to create an ongoing forum for sharing information and perspectives. This two-pronged approach by Gulf 2000 has not only helped fill a crucial void in the diplomatic/scholarly world, but has also established a pattern of civil discourse and mutual understanding that has had an influence far beyond its relatively small group of 500 members.(1)

Limitations

The political mood in the Middle East plays a significant role both in NGOs' decisions to organize regional activities and in the decisions by individuals to participate. While the increase in communications and cross-border contacts during the last decade has made such cooperation more common than ever, participation in this work remains tied to the perceived state of overall relations in the region.
There are a number of parties that have chosen not to participate in official or unofficial multilateral exchanges as long as bilateral negotiations have not been concluded. Syria and Lebanon have officially taken such a stance. Beyond this, the presence or absence of Israeli participants is a significant determinant of attendance as well.
Even the important elements of empathy and understanding can have limits, as Nathan Funk suggests. While he points out the positive impact that meetings organized by Search for Common Ground have had, his research also reflects that the personal empathy developed in those gatherings (i.e., understanding an individual) does not always catalyze understanding of the shared cultural meanings within each society that are at the heart of the region's conflicts.(2)
Terminology can also be an impediment to cooperation. The Toda Institute of the University of Hawaii discovered this when organizing what became the International Commission for Security and Cooperation in West Asia, a Track II effort focusing on security issues in the Gulf region. The participants come from the eight littoral states of the Gulf plus the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Those from Arab states were unwilling to participate if the term "Persian Gulf" was used to identify the region, while Iranians objected to the term "Arab Gulf." Agreement was eventually reached on the use of "West Asia."(3)
The role of outside organizers and funders can also be problematic. Julia Pitner, the director of Search for Common Ground's regional office in Amman, explores some of the responses to international NGOs and funding agencies in an article in the Spring 2000 issue of Middle East Report. Remarking on the recent trend toward greater scrutiny of non-governmental organizations by many Middle East governments, she notes:
A prime focus of governmental attention is the relationship of local NGOs to international NGOs (INGOs), particularly in relation to foreign funding. Governments wish to preserve the right to approve or prohibit such formal partnerships between NGOs and INGOs.(4)
Ms. Pitner also points out that the funding priorities of Western funding agencies, such as USAID and the European Community, may derive from foreign policy objectives that are not necessarily aligned with local needs, which can create misperceptions and feelings of inequality on the part of Middle East partner organizations.

Looking Ahead

Although there are some drawbacks and problems, as mentioned here, non-governmental regional cooperation clearly helps to build a constituency and environment for peace by illustrating the constructive possibilities that can develop in the aftermath of conflict. Such activities - despite continued opposition by some - provide an alternative vision of the future that may become increasingly important as the region moves into a new era in Arab-Israeli relations.


(1) Gary G. Sick, "Gulf 2000: The Digital Peacemakers," 21stC: The World of Research at Columbia, Fall 1995, and Lawrence G. Potter, "Bombers and Scholars: Gulf/2000 Responds to Conflict," 21stC: The World of Research at Columbia, Spring 1999, .
(2) Nathan C. Funk, Theory and Practice of Track II Diplomacy: Impact and Dynamics of the Search for Common Ground in the Middle East Initiative. Ph.D. dissertation, American University, Washington, D.C., 2000.
(3) 3. Majid Tehranian, "Bridge Over Troubled Waters: Triple Track Diplomacy in the Persian Gulf," Peace & Policy, Volume 4, Nos. 1-2 (Fall/Winter 1999), pp. 3-11.
(4) Julia Pitner, "NGOs' Dilemmas," Middle East Report, Spring 2000, pp. 34-37.

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