Biden needs to tear down bureaucratic walls and refocus Middle East programs

President Joe Biden
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A new reality stands before us: With the Abraham Accords, half the Arab population of the Middle East and North Africa now live in countries with formal diplomatic relations with Israel. But top-down diplomatic achievements will remain thin and fragile without real, bottom-up substance: people-to-people cooperation in populous Arab states that brings tangible benefit to the society, not just to elites. Several existing U.S. programs to promote Arab development, civil society, political pluralism, and labor rights need now to be integrated with the principle of Arab-Israeli civil partnership.

To achieve this integration, the Biden administration must overcome bureaucratic routines and outdated mission segregation if it wants to increase the prospect of achieving its policy aims.


  • The U.S. Government operates a range of programs to promote Arab development, among them the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) in the State Department, and through the four parts of the National Endowment for Democracy (the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, and the Chambers of Commerce). Other programs exist within the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID), notably its Middle East Regional Cooperation (MERC) program, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and even the Justice and Defense Departments.
  • The U.S. Government also supports efforts to build Israeli-Palestinian civil society engagement and, when possible, to advance prospects for a two-state peace settlement.
  • The U.S. Government also supports the normalization of Israel’s political-diplomatic status within the regional state system, an effort that has recently expanded to include four new bilateral relationships (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan) to add to two long-existing others (Egypt and Jordan).

But with few exceptions like MERC, it has pursued these three tracks separately, each as though the others did not exist.

That wall of programming and bureaucratic segregation may once have made tactical sense, but it does no longer. Taboos are withering away: Support among Arab publics for engagement with Israel’s economy and society is growing even in the remaining countries that still lack formal diplomatic ties to Israel.

This shift in attitudes does not negate Palestinian issues; to the contrary, it bears major potential to advance them by privileging the practical and pressing needs of Palestinian communities over the hesitations of their existing leaders. In short, a potential win-win-win trifecta stands before us if we can seize the moment to be creatively responsive to new circumstances.

The way to begin is to widen the ambit of existing programs to include Israelis and Arabs from across the region, as well as connect Israeli-Palestinian civil and political engagement to the larger regional dynamic where possible and practical. Region-wide Israeli-Arab civil engagement should thus be added to the regular programming of U.S. Government-funded endowments for Arab development, including but not limited to MEPI and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) divisions of the NED.

It would be wise to begin with existing programs and build connections outward to entail new dimensions. So, for example, already promising MEPI or National Endowment for Democracy (NED) capacity building programs in any Arab country can be enhanced through a triangulation with internship opportunities in Israel.

It would be wise to focus first on building public connections between Israel and the six Arab countries with which it enjoys formal diplomatic ties — and use those developments to encourage further regional normalization.

It would be wise to focus on programs that benefit youth and women’s engagement in civil society, and useful if like-minded NGOs in the United States and Europe were to encourage Western governments to adapt a more integrated and multi-dimensional approach to the matrix of regional challenges and opportunities.

It may be wise to set up a coordinating office within the National Security Council for this purpose, but Congress might play an important role, too. It could legislate to make the pursuit of Arab-Israeli civil engagement a formal part of the NED’s and MEPI’s mandate.

The need to take down the wall between the promotion of Arab development and the promotion of Arab-Israeli partnerships at all levels is evident. For example, laudable legislation introduced by the since-retired Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), a $250 million allocation for Palestinian-Israeli engagement, did not include a regional dimension. MEPI job-training programs in Morocco do not yet leverage the new Israeli-Moroccan relationship to enhance those efforts; similarly, ongoing MEPI programs that bring together Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians have not ventured beyond geographical Palestine.

Never has this wall of self-imposed isolation been more inconsistent with the U.S. policy goal of promoting a broad peace between Arabs and Israelis.

Never has it been more important to build momentum toward inclusion and against the zero-sum mentality of boycotting and exclusion, which only breeds anger and intransigence.

Arab-Israeli civil engagement at every level, wherever and whenever possible, enriches all the societies involved, enhances state-to-state diplomacy, and builds the conditions necessary for publics to embrace peace. It’s time now to tear down that other wall. It won’t happen by itself.

Joseph Braude is President of the Center for Peace Communications and author of “Reclamation: A Cultural Policy for Arab-Israeli Partnership” (The Washington Institute, 2019).

Dennis Ross is counselor and the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to President Obama, as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, and as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. He is the author, with David Makovsky, of “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny.” Follow him on Twitter @AmbDennisRoss.

Tags Abraham Accords Arab citizens of Israel Arab–Israeli peace projects Bahrain Dennis Ross Egypt Foreign relations of the United States international aid Israel Joe Biden Jordan Middle East Partnership Initiative Middle East Policy Morocco Nita Lowey Palestinian Territories Palestinians Sudan U.S. Department of State United Arab Emirates United States Agency for International Development (USAID) United States foreign policy

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