Bustling Backwards: Lessons from the Norwegian Sponsored Israeli-Palestinian People-to-People Program
In 1995, Norway was invited by the Palestinians and the Israelis to assist them in designing and implementing a program in which the two parties would cooperate in "enhancing the dialogue and relations between their peoples, as well as in gaining a wider exposure of the two publics to the peace process, its current situation and predicted results." The parties decided to "take steps to foster public debate and involvement, to remove barriers to interaction, and to increase the people-to-people exchange and interaction."1
This became known as the official Israeli-Palestinian People-to-People Program, and what distinguished it from other initiatives, was its relation to and backing from the authorities. The initiative came from the chief negotiators in the secret Oslo channel.2 They were concerned about how little Palestinians knew about Israelis and vice versa. The Oslo agreement was the result of elite negotiations, and the negotiators wanted to bridge the gap between them and their publics. By embarking on the program, the authorities wanted to provide legitimacy to those on both sides who wanted to meet and to cooperate after the Parties had signed their mutual recognition.3

An Initial Design for Institutional Change

The official status was a major design criterion shaping the Program. The Norwegian financing per se was of less significance, as many other countries financed people-to-people activities. However, the fact that Norway was invited to take a role as "coach" for the official program became significant for the way this role developed. At the outset, the three partners held quite different views on what a people-to-people program would imply. They appointed one representative each4 for the concept development team which met regularly from January 1995 until the signing of the Oslo II agreement.
Two core assumptions influenced the design: First, the parties assumed that the peace process would follow the roadmap defined in the Declaration of Principles and, therefore, the P2P activities would be embedded in that process. Second, the overall instrument to build trust and confidence in the peace process was increased cooperation between the parties and the peoples, as well as increased integration on the popular level. The idea of any need for separation was ruled out of practical politics.5 Eventually, both would turn out crucially wrong.
The main guidance to the design team was to prepare a program to facilitate mass encounters between Israelis and Palestinians, accompanied by campaigns and active use of the media. The suggestion was to set a target for as many as 10,000 persons of various categories to meet during the first year. The spirit of peace was quite high then, and it was expected that reconciliation processes between the two peoples could start immediately. Norway was ready to allocate a considerable sum of money.
The design team did not share this enthusiasm, however. They suggested starting what they called "a public-opinion project" and to build up activities gradually as experience was acquired. The designers aimed at bridging the gap between the negotiators/leaders and the publics, and at providing the people with a wider exposure to the process. This way public opinion on both sides would be channeled from a suspicious, hostile, and largely ignorant one towards mutual recognition and, more concretely, recognition of the other side's aspirations, anxieties and legitimate interests.
The team saw the need for a systematic removal of thresholds for interaction, and for the restructuring of the actual meeting points between the peoples. It aimed for a methodical exposure of the new realities in the media and within the public debate, as well as for a feedback by the various publics to power-holders about reactions to and interpretations of the political interventions and "messages." The team, therefore, prescribed three kinds of activities: First, a series of "strategic interventions," i.e., interventions into areas that could help shape new ways of interaction; second, opinion polling and research projects; and third, a media and communications strategy. The guiding idea was to think in terms of institutional change. The targets for interventions were ministries and public institutions, as well as core arenas for public encounters like checkpoints and crossings. Mass encounters were part of the larger repertoire of methods. Four target groups were defined - the general public, youth, opinion leaders, and Palestinians living inside Israel. It was assumed that projects would tackle issues on each side according to needs, priorities, and possibilities, rather than try to coordinate directly between the two sides. The challenge was to identify areas with leverage to influence the larger societal systems.6

A Challenging Start

Immediately following the September 1995 agreement, the design team was given the assignment to start the Program. The team had already invented and decided to use the label "P2P" which was later to be used by the whole field. Each side nominated a non-governmental organization (NGO) as its "Planning Group" and the two sides shared the facilities of a Joint Secretariat provided by Norway. This became the operating level of the Program, while the three partners met for so-called "hub-meetings" to coordinate their individual decisions as required. On the top, the three "owners" were to keep contact to provide guidance and direction, as well as to help clear any misunderstandings or conflicts between them. The model was based on collaboration and consensus.7 The costs were to be shared between Norway and the Israeli partner, the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropists.
By the time the Program started, an Israeli had murdered Prime Minister Rabin. Some time later, Israel killed the "Engineer," a Palestinian responsible for several attacks on Israeli civilians. A new cycle of violence began. Acting Prime Minister at the time, Shimon Peres, launched a major military operation in South Lebanon. He called for early elections, and lost to Binyamin Netanyahu during the summer of 1996. In the new political context, it became impossible to properly launch the Program, which had to be repeatedly delayed.
Meanwhile, the Program prepared 36 projects for implementation, partly of its own design and partly suggested by others. By the time the Israeli government changed into one that was hostile to the Oslo process, the Program had designed its logo, printed its presentation material, and started 14 projects. The Program was operational, but the political context completely changed its opportunity situation.

Working under Likud: The Decoupling Strategy

With the results of the Israeli elections, it became clear that the Program needed a "clutch" as the authorities would probably not be able to provide its "motor" - as the analogy went in the internal Hub discussions at the time. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to stand by Norway's commitment and, after consultations with its Israeli colleagues who were able to confirm that the new government was committed to continuing the P2P activities on a grass-root level, the Program was instructed to design a new approach. It gave up its institutional approach and went, on its own terms, "grass root." It also became "reactive" in the sense that it rather reacted to applications from others than to proactively defining interventions itself. It also reduced the role of the Hub, and, by implication, the role of politics.
The new design focused on providing support to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working within specifically targeted segments of the society and wishing to undertake joint projects between Israelis and Palestinians. The Program undertook to cover the extra costs incurred by the cross-border collaboration under the prevailing circumstances. The objective was to foster more face-to-face interactions. The NGOs were expected to work within their ordinary fields, as the aim was not to finance the establishment of new peace-oriented organizations. To maximize outreach, financing was spread to many organizations. The goal was to foster true cooperation between partners working as equals in joint projects.
To provide transparency and enable interested organizations to search for support, calls for projects were advertised in Israeli and Palestinian papers. The Program was to support relatively small projects, with at least one partner from each side, within the fields of culture, media, adult dialogues, youth, and environment. The budgets were not to exceed U.S. $20,000. To strengthen equality among the partners, the Norwegian support was to go to the Palestinian partner, while the Israeli financing was to cover the Israeli side. Financial reporting was to be done separately and the narrative report was to be a joint product. Meetings were to take place in the region, with all the difficulties this implied.
During the following years, the Planning groups received two hundred applications per year. The two Planning Groups and the Secretariat evaluated the projects and checked the applicants. They agreed on a prioritized list of around 40 projects8 within the different fields, taking into account the geographical distribution within Israel and the Palestinian areas in order to cover, for example, Gaza and the northern parts of the West Bank. The Planning Groups and the Secretariat assisted applicants in finding partners and improving their projects. The total list was presented to the authorities, and the Hub met to formally accept the selection. There were a few cases where the Program itself commissioned applications in fields of a particular interest.
In 1998, the Program modified the fields of interest. The experience from media projects was not convincing, and the category "school twinning" was added.9 In addition to the obvious goal of reaching to pupils and teachers, these projects were particularly interesting. As they implied approval and support by the parents, they had the potential to reach out to people who had not previously participated in peace-related activities.
In its capacity as the official program for people-to-people activities, the Program tried to involve the authorities on both sides and to remind them of their commitments in accordance with the 1995 agreement. A core issue was travel permits which became an increasingly important obstacle to meetings. The Program took upon itself the specific responsibility of building an infrastructure for people-to-people activities and activists. It established a database of organizations and projects, as well as an internet homepage. It organized meetings - both uni-national and joint -between activists to provide them with the opportunity to exchange experiences and ideas. A major success was the convention in August 1997 which was held in Gaza and in which 120 Israeli and Palestinian activists took part - although it was a logistical nightmare. The Program had flexible funds for small activities that needed urgent support, and Norway initiated regular meetings between donors.
During 1996-1999, political circumstances led to uncertainty regarding the continuity of the official program. The Oslo process was in a shaky situation, and all the other initiatives defined in the Oslo II agreement had grinded to a halt. However, the people-to-people activities were not only tolerated, but actually supported by the authorities on both sides - even if the public profile was kept low in the midst of the conflict. Norway managed to clear potential conflicts and ensure the continued support for the Program through secret meetings on top political level.10 This benefited the whole field and not only the official Program.

Adapting again to Changing Political Environments

The "civil-society turn" was not intended by design, but imposed by changes in the political environment. This led the Program to try to reactivate its initial ideas. The Israeli elections in May 1999 brought Labor to government and Ehud Barak to the Prime Ministry, raising expectations within the peace camps. In discussions held in Helsinki in November 1999, a faction of activists argued that all projects should focus on the upcoming negotiations and campaigned to win support for any negotiated peace agreement.11 The issue threatened to split the activists into two opposing groups.
The official Program was not willing to pursue this venue. We argued for keeping a neutral political profile, while continuing to stimulate public debate. However, we also tried to enter the new political space and build institutionally oriented projects according to the initial design. We invested a lot of work in order to establish cooperation between regional partners with bigger projects. One example was Cooperation North, which involved cross-border cooperation between municipalities in the north of the West Bank. These projects came in addition to support to civil-society projects.
Ehud Barak failed, and with the botched talks in Taba, he lost the February 2001 elections to Ariel Sharon. By then, the second Palestinian intifada had started. The two peoples got engaged in hot conflict, with violence claiming heavy casualties on both sides. People-to-people activities became almost impossible to carry out. Many peace activists on both sides turned away, sad and disappointed by their former friends on the other side.
The Program changed its operations and tried to rescue as much of the infrastructure as was possible. We gathered activists to discuss the new developments. Israeli activists met in Israel in March 2001; the Palestinian activists were invited to Oslo in June of that year. In March 2002, we invited a mixed group of activists to Istanbul to discuss the situation and to explore methods of dealing with it. In the sad environment of the till-then bloodiest weekend in the history of the Oslo process, these activists mourned and planned a new future together. Instead of canceling projects, we tried to implement as many of them as possible. A few new projects were accepted and financed, but most of them never got started.
It became unfeasible to persist with the established method of operation. After a series of political consultations, the Program shifted into financing the initiative called the Peace Coalition. It consisted of one Palestinian group and one Israeli - both headed by respected leaders on both sides - who worked to influence public opinion. The thrust of their message was that negotiated peace was possible, and there was a partner on the other side. The Program also urged the Quartet to include people-to-people activities in its new Road Map - which it did.
In spite of all these efforts, everything came to a halt in 2003. In a last attempt, Norway tried during that year to persuade the parties to analyze achievements and shortcomings, and, eventually, to redesign the Program under a new and more appropriate name. Then-Prime Minister Abbas nominated a steering group, and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs prepared one group that would meet with its Palestinian counterpart. When Abbas handed in his resignation, however, once again everything was put on hold.

Program Outcomes Were Good

In our evaluation, the P2P Program did not develop into the intended political instrument as designed. The reason, however, is mainly external to the Program: the Oslo peace process broke down. The parties were never really able to use the Program, or to provide it with the necessary political guidance. In our view, this does not mean that the P2P Program or the other people-to-people activities were futile or failures. They were successful, but the timing was wrong. The battles to fight outweighed the peace that was to be implemented.
Altogether, the official Program went through five major design changes. In practical terms, the initial design was never really put to the test, as the requisite conditions were never realized. The Program survived government changes and provided official legitimacy to the field in shifting contexts. It built an infrastructure which incorporated both organizational structure and a network of organizations and activists experienced in designing and implementing such joint projects.
In our assessment, the outreach was quite substantial, although we are not able to provide a figure for the number of people having been directly or indirectly mobilized by the projects.12 There was some albeit limited media coverage. During the period from 1995 to 2003, the Program received 705 applications for funding of projects. Of these, 174 projects13 were actually implemented with a high rate of success. A total of 465 organizations cooperated in these projects.14 The number of projects is shown in Table 1.

To many participants, the backing from the authorities was viewed as providing legitimacy, which for them was important in their decision to join in the Program. That said, the Program gave rise to a lot of deliberation within Palestinian society - which was its goal. In the absence of a peace process, the critics of people-to-people projects got the upper hand. At a certain point, an umbrella organization for NGOs decided to expel the members who participated in such activities, criticizing them for "collaborating" with the occupier, as well as for being financed with foreign funds through Israeli organizations. The official Program negotiated an understanding that such criticism would not extend to "our" project partners, pointing to the fact that the Israeli organizations were funded by Israeli funds and the Palestinian partners obtained their share (normally half of the total) directly from Norway.
In total, the Program spent U.S. $2.9 million on project support. Of this, Norway contributed 66 percent and the Israeli foundation the rest. Of the Norwegian support, 81 percent went to Palestinian organizations. A third of the share that was spent on Israeli organizations was used to finance the Israeli part of the Peace Coalition. The category Adult Dialogues was the biggest with 29 percent of the total project support, while Youth was second biggest with 20 percent. We spent 16 percent on the big projects, 11 percent of the total on Environment, 10 percent on Schools, 8 percent on Culture, and 5 percent on media projects.
According to estimates made,15 international donors contributed as much as U.S. $20-25 million to people-to-people activities between 1993 and 2000. Most of this financing was channeled to civil-society organizations. If these estimates are correct, the official P2P Program may have contributed with around 13 percent of the total financing available during those years.

Many Lessons Learnt

In addition to the overall assumptions that have informed this discussion, we may list several more points in the general nature of lessons to be learnt. Any people-to-people program should be designed with enough flexibility to allow for adaptations to the ups and downs in the political process. The first lesson is that such a program will be heavily influenced by its political environment. In our case, the parties never used the Program to its full potential, for the simple reason that the political environment changed from one where the agenda was peace to one where both parties took to weapons.
Another lesson relates to the projects themselves and not to the general design: Whenever people from the two sides met, the issue of the conflict was always present and needed to be addressed. This did not come as a surprise to us. The very reason for our suggesting that meetings would entail joint work on a project or the solving of a task is due to our belief that collaboration on any undertaking facilitates the process of bridging the gaps created by the conflict. We wanted to elicit mutually benefiting experiences; unfortunately, the conflict was always present and controlled the structure of the encounters. Many groups needed assistance to find ways of talking to each other, and to vent in a constructive way their grievances, their fears and their hope. Therefore, the Program made available process consultants when needed.
We learnt that the differences between the parties are reflected or reproduced in the projects. Israelis and Palestinians do not meet as equals. They come from different societies, and they have quite different backgrounds and organizational cultures. They are acutely aware of the political realities, i.e., that one side "represents" the occupier and the other the occupied. The Israeli organizations tend to be more experienced and professional in dealing with European or American donors. Thus, unwittingly and with the very best intentions, they tended to become paternalistic and to reproduce the relations of dominance that prevailed in the political domain. The Program had to carefully create equality between the partners by, for example, splitting the budget and allocating at least one half directly to the Palestinian partner.
The participants often came to meetings with different motives, motivations and expectations. Often, they expected too much. It takes time to build trust across the divide. In some projects, the participants were to an extent disappointed by their partners and sometimes failed in having goals and interests coincide. Also, language barriers and the cultural differences between moderate Palestinians and left-wing Israelis led to difficulties in communication. It is not easy to properly "read" the other part with incompatible frames of reference for interpretation. To our surprise, the challenges seemed largest in youth projects.
A main challenge was, as mentioned earlier, the lack of legitimacy for people-to-people cooperation. We believe that even the rather passive support from the authorities on both sides for the official Program was important for the whole field. Third parties have a role to play. Without the perseverance of Norway and the Secretariat, the official Program would have faced the same limiting odds as the other initiatives that were agreed upon by the parties in 1995 and, like many, would never have got off the ground. The need for a third party was obvious on all levels down to individual meetings in projects. The main burden on the facilitator is not to administer the project funds - a rather straightforward and limited task - but to act as a go-between and process consultant on all levels of activity. The facilitator probably should be sufficiently organized to match the organizational complexity of the field. Our responses were the Planning groups and the Secretariat. When working together, the small team struggled with the same problems in bridging internal differences, as our constituencies did in the world outside.

Concluding Remarks for Future Designs

In hindsight, would we use the same design again? Probably yes, with minor modifications. There are few theoretical models that can help us find suitable tools for changing the images of the other across divides of protracted conflicts. Intervention models often apply to confined social systems, and not to two open, large-scale societies with opposed and conflicting narratives and interests.
One place to start is to consider the characteristics of different types of initiatives or interventions. The potential of each of these will vary according to the phases of a given conflict resolution process. With a view to illustrate the approach, we have listed ten types of activities that are often used, with their characteristics and assumed usefulness in different contexts, ranging from hot conflict to peace-building. The ten types cover small-scale dialogues and initiatives involving only one of the parties at a time, as the simplest forms. Targeted information from one side to the other, as well as coordinated initiatives and campaigns that involve joint action by change actors from both sides, represent intermediate forms. Emotional content is increased when joint ventures are created, like concerts and so on. Then we have more complex forms of cooperation and direct meetings of various scales, ranging from groups to communities. The most complex change initiatives involve solving regional tasks or organizing reconciliation and transitional justice events.
In Table 2, the ten types are listed indicating whether they are well-suited or demanding for implementation within a given context. The ten types of initiatives have different characteristics. Some of them imply a strong focus on the conflict. Others have a lesser focus, or have greater unpredictability in the way the interaction leads to a focus on the conflict. The numbers of participants vary, as well as the intensity of the encounter. The initiatives differ in their potential impact in changing the images of the other, as well as in potential for outreach to new groups

The most efficient people-to-people initiative is one that involves a high number of participants, reaches out to many constituencies, and offers high-intensity encounters with a focus on the conflict. Such initiatives are impossible to make before the very last phase of conflict resolution. Therefore, the ideal and high-efficiency program to support initial phases of a peace process does not exist. The design will by necessity strike compromises between what is possible and what is effective in a given political context.
The Israeli-Palestinian People-to-People Program was designed while negotiations were on the agenda, and it was implemented while the situation in the Oslo process degraded from cold to violent or hot conflict. It went through a few ups, and many downs. While the peace process slipped backward, we were bustling forward towards an increasingly unreachable goal. No doubt, we were successful in what we were all doing, but the two peoples missed the opportunity to make peace.


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1 The Interim Agreement (Oslo II, 1995), Articles II and VIII of Appendix VI ("Protocol Concerning Israeli-Palestinian Cooperation Programs").
2 Uri Savir and Ahmed Qurei'a presented their ideas to the Norwegian State Secretary Jan Egeland in November 1994.
3 A more comprehensive description can be found in Hanssen-Bauer, Jon and Mona Christophersen, 2004 (in Norwegian).
4 The three were Ilan Baruch who worked in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs where Uri Savir was the then-director general, Dr. Hassan Abu-Libdeh who was a close associate of Ahmed Qurei'a and was then director of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, and this author. Mona Juul, then political adviser at the Norwegian Embassy in Tel Aviv, participated occasionally.
5 The issue was explicitly raised with Uri Savir as a question whether the program should consider the option that the Palestinian people might opt for increased separation before being ready for more cooperation. Savir's position was that this would run counter to the spirit of the Oslo agreement.
6 The author was inspired by theories of socio-technical design of organizations, organizational ecologies and referent organizations (see e.g. Eric Trist, 1983; Oguz Bab├╝roglu, 1988; Thoralf U. Qvale, 1996), as well as theories of intervention and teambuilding (see Jon Hanssen-Bauer, 1986).
7 The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed Fafo to be its representative and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropists (later Kerev). Ahmed Qurei'a appointed Hassan Abu-Libdeh to set up a Planning Group. Later, the planning role was handed over to the Palestinian Center for Peace and the political supervision to Mahmoud Abbas. Abu-Libdeh was replaced by other representatives (for a long period, Sufian Abu-Zaideh).
8 That the number became around 40 did not reflect any political decision in itself. Actually the Program was never able to spend much over half of the allocations made available by the Norwegian Government. The Director of the Program held back. He wanted to have projects of a certain quality, and thought that an increase in the number and the level of spending would not pay off and be worth the added investment within the current political environment. The infrastructure established could have served a volume several times bigger than the actual one, if and when that would have been required and possible. The Program was not intended to become a dominant actor in terms of its size.
9 The projects proved rather demanding due to opposition in the Ministries of Education, and mostly private schools participated.
10 Meetings were held, e.g., between Eitan Bentsur (director general in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and Hassan Asfour on behalf of the PLO.
11 It was expected that Israel would hold a referendum. During this time, the Palestinians also pushed to activate cooperation mechanisms established in the Oslo II agreement.
12 Such estimates have been made for the whole people-to-people field, but they are based on doubtful methodologies.
13 In Table 1 above, the decision was to finance 37 projects in 2002-2003, but only 4 were actually implemented.
14 Two-hundred and twenty-two Israeli and 204 Palestinian organizations, 29 organizations had both Israelis and Palestinian members, 5 organizations were Norwegian and 5 had other nationalities
15 Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), 2002.