From 2003–2005, EWI served as an impartial broker in the Middle East Bridges project, engaging Israelis and Palestinians. The project’s aim, elaborates former intern Ian Hawkins, “was to bolster the peace process, and to explore the possibility of developing a free trade zone at the Erez crossing point between Israel and Gaza.”
A glance at the institute’s annual reports (2002-2005) provides further detail. The project, led by former EWI Vice President Mathias Mossberg, was intended “to promote peace and security, sustainable growth, rule of law and good governance as vital components of the region’s development.” The 2004 report asserts that “the program is a long-term confidence-building initiative to facilitate dialogue and constructive relations within the region.”
An important component of the project aimed to foster open dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. This dialogue brought a new idea to fruition: two superimposed, “parallel states” with a dual system of government. Writing in The Guardian in 2006, Mossbergexpanded upon the idea. “Instead of the familiar formula in which two states exist side by side, Israel and Palestine would be two states superimposed on one another. Citizens could freely choose which system to belong to - their citizenship would be bound not to territory, but to choice.” Mossberg concedes that this idea is far-fetched.
A private sector initiative, another component of the project, aimed to promote economic development in the Gaza Strip, partly by revitalizing and rehabilitating its industrial parks to provide 500 local jobs. The initiative included prominent local and international economic experts and investors.
The Middle East Bridges Project, which ended in 2005, did not achieve all of its aims as originally anticipated, especially in the wake of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. The industrial park that EWI endeavored to maintain and develop was later destroyed in cross-border fighting; the radical Hamas movement still controls the territory.
But despite the myriad complexities and geopolitical entanglements associated with any NGO’s work in the Middle East, EWI helped to build meaningful relationships between individual Israelis and Palestinians. “Still, something has survived from EWI’s intervention in the Middle East,” reflected an EWI publication in 2009, “the tentative connections made between Israelis and Palestinians in the dialogues, and some of their ideas. Ideas that may not bring peace tomorrow, but that can offer new hope to a new generation.”
Four years later, regional dynamics have shifted in a far more uncertain direction as the Arab Spring has toppled neighboring regimes. While President Obama visited Israel last week, a comprehensive two state solution seems ever more unattainable. Meanwhile, the threat of continuing violence between Israel and its neighbors remains elevated. Emboldened by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in neighboring Egypt, Hamas rejects the two-state solution and has yet to completely halt rocket fire into Israeli territory.
In the current climate, where the word of the day seems to be impasse over progress, EWI’s mastery of promoting dialogue “between those who do not normally speak to each other” remains paramount.