Guest Column: The Future of Palestine Project

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By David L. Phillips, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program specializing in conflict resolution. He served as a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs during the Iraq War.

International partners of the Palestinian people must start working now to envision a stable, prosperous, and peaceful Palestine based on the principles of a two-state solution. Guidance can be drawn from the Future of Iraq Project, an initiative established by the U.S. government to assist Iraq’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. While the Future of Iraq Project is viewed as ineffectual, its failure stemmed not from design flaws but rather from the Bush White House taking over the planning process from the State Department, politicizing its work, and ignoring its findings. Planning revealed problems that neoconservatives in the Bush administration feared might slow the march to war.

I served as a U.S. adviser at the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs Bureau. Between 2002 and 2003, I worked with Iraqis involved in the Democratic Principles Working Group, one of 17 working groups to which Congress had allocated $5 million in funding. Iraqis called it “the mother of all working groups” because it addressed the most sensitive issues –federalism, minority rights, de-Baathification, oil revenue sharing, and integrating armed militias into the state’s security apparatus.

The Future of Iraq Project working groups were made up of by-and-large technocrats. While international experts were assigned to each working group, the Project emphasized dialogue with local partners with specific expertise areas. Meetings were discreet but not secret. For example, one meeting was held at a farmhouse in the Surrey countryside. The solutions put forward by Iraqis during the working groups were published in a study that became public in 2006.

The 13-volume study thematically covered topics ranging from water resource management to electricity production. It covered grass-roots economic development and agroindustry, including animal husbandry. Local government and checks and balances were also discussed in the context of Iraq’s democratization. So were health care and hospital services. The Future of Iraq Project evolved into a conflict resolution process that challenged Iraqis to overcome ethnic and sectarian differences in search of consensus.

After almost three weeks of clashes between Israel and Hamas, we wonder, “What next for Palestine”?

President Joe Biden’s full-throttled support for Israel makes the United States unsuitable to lead the planning process. Trust between the United States and Palestinians is at an all-time low. Instead, the UN, European countries, and Gulf states are better placed to provide leadership assisting post-war reconstruction and humanitarian assistance.

Planning for the future must not commence after war has been waged; instead, it must begin in advance of broader hostilities. The international community should start working now with Palestinian partners to identify topics and participants to set up a process modeled after the Future of Iraq Project. A political solution will ultimately be required. However, dialogue can identify common ground between representatives of Palestinian civil society.

There are several venues where meetings could be convened. The University of Qatar has technical, administrative, and conflict resolution capacity. Its Qatar charity could take the lead in project management and administration.

The World Food Program in Rome, the American University of Cairo, and the American University of Beirut are regional organizations with suitable expertise. Their ties to the UN and the United States would be assets once fund-raising starts. Potential donors could include Norway, Switzerland, and the Gulf States.

Palestinians would not be left on their own. Technical meetings could be convened in various settings where Palestinians would be willing to meet. Each working group could be advised by international experts from the League of Arab States, the European Union, the United States, and other countries with suitable skills.

The Future of Iraq Project was not a panacea for Iraq’s woes after the invasion. It did, however, engage Iraqis in an empowering dialogue that might have had greater success had the Bush administration stayed the course.

Palestinians desperately need a process that can advance their peacebuilding and reconstruction interests, instilling hope in the future. The United States can discreetly assist the planning process by working with Palestinian civil society and countries in the Levant and Gulf regions. However, it must maintain a low profile lest its involvement be perceived as an imperial design.


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