After former World Bank President James Wolfensohn had taken over in 2005 as chairman of the Quartet a representative body comprised of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations and focused on moving the cause of Israel-Palestine peace forward, he once said to me that the only way to know whether progress was being achieved is if we saw Palestinian produced strawberries finding their way to breakfast tables in Europe. Wolfensohn was so focused on making business work for Palestinians that he invested his own money in trying to retrofit operations at the Karni Crossing.
Ultimately, Israeli indifference and in some cases strong opposition to trying to make this effort work -- and the lack of trained Palestinian infrastructure managers resulted in strawberries rotting en masse at the shipping terminal.
Wolfensohn's effort and dedication to the Palestinian cause has always fascinated and troubled me because he knew that political optics were not enough -- that one needed to link on the ground changes to political cosmetics to secure change. Frequently, perhaps mostly, what is happening in the Palestinian street and what is taking place between top-tier Israeli and Palestinian politicos are not in sync.
Sometimes, leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah have pretended that things were moving in positive directions while the institutionalized humiliation of Palestinians increased, for example when the number of checkpoints and transportation blocks in the Occupied Territories surged upward, as they did after the Bush administration initiated Annapolis conference Israel-Palestine peace effort.
Today, it's difficult to see any serious international efforts focused on resolving Palestine's standoff with Israel moving forward. While the Obama team has had a number of key foreign policy and national security successes -- the Israel-Palestine mess which was a defining challenge Obama accepted for himself has been a disaster.
Obama administration envoy George Mitchell has resigned. Hillary Clinton is filling her time with China stuff -- not Israel/Palestine questions. National Security Council senior director for the region Dennis Ross has just announced he is leaving the Obama operation -- having neither succeeded in bringing his friend Benjamin Netanyahu into any sort of constructive line and also not resolving the Iran challenge which was part of his portfolio.
Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas has taken a page out of Netanyahu's book and has begun to completely ignore the requests and expectations of the United States and has filed for full state recognition with the United Nations Security Council and has succeeded in having Palestine voted in as a member of UNESCO. In an odd situation in which the US Congress decided to hold American interests hostage to the behavior of others, the US is now de-funding and withdrawing from UNESCO because of the inclusion of Palestine. This same pattern may now unravel American membership in other UN organizations like the World Intellectual Property Organization, the IAEA, the World Health Organization, and many United Nations entities in which Palestine plans to seek membership.
A counter-productive US law passed in 1994 requires the US withdraw from and stop funding operations of any UN entity which accepts Palestinian membership. It's incredible that the US Congress is holding US interests hostage to the behavior of other countries -- but that is the state of play today.
As UNESCO begins to figure out how it is going to operate without US membership again -- which is such a travesty but nonetheless a reality -- it's important to take a look at what is going on to help and assist Palestinian society and culture on the ground. If we were taking a James Wolfensohn lens to the local level, what would we look for?
One of the micro-successes with which I have recently become familiar is the Nablus-based "Tomorrow's Youth Organization" (TYO). This group which has a 501(c)3, non-profit affiliate in the US essentially focuses on assisting women and children in Palestine improve their options. Women get assistance in conceptualizing how to take skills they have and developing them into small businesses; or they get training in new skills they help give them options in what otherwise are very constrained and limited social and community environments. Their children are exposed to ideas and games and people who help open their eyes to opportunity beyond the camps in which they are growing up.
Many of those who work in these camps are young American women -- who have up til now not been harassed by Islamic conservatives and who operate with increasingly stronger support of the 'bosses' running camps of Palestinian refugees.
I have met a number of those who teach in these camps and at the TYO Center in Nablus, which was founded by Palestinian-American leader Hani Masri with support from other leading Masri family members inside Palestine. Cherie Blair and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women have become strong supporters of TYO. Former President Bill Clinton last year headlined a major fundraising event for TYO in Washington which also featured Ms. Blair as well as former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe. US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer also traveled to Nablus, Palestine to visit TYO and see the training that young, American volunteers were doing in the camps.
The visits of these high and mighty types are useful for recognition of something important happening on the ground. But what is happening in Nablus did not wait for their approval or affirmation. The interesting things that are unfolding at TYO have occurred despite recognition from official Washington or from the officials in Turtle Bay and have almost been done to spite those involved in the Arab-Israeli peace process.