Current Palestinian conditions and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as seen by a German foundation

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Thomas Birringer (left) and Marc Frings of the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation (Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung) at a CMED event. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

UCLA International Institute, April 26, 2019 — Two officials from the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation (Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, or KAS), painted a dismal picture of Israeli-Palestinian relations at a recent event organized by the Center for Middle East Development (CMED).

No peace process is being pursued, Palestinian society has become extremely fragmented and open talk of the annexation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories — or at least a portion thereof — is now common in Israel. The occupation, moreover, was not even an issue in the just concluded Israeli parliamentary campaign.

The KAS country office in the Palestinian Territories is focusing on regular opinion polling, youth entrepreneurship projects and strategic dialogue platforms for German and Palestinian multipliers. Cross-border activities between Israelis and Palestinians are currently a big challenge, but still possible, if activities are well-defined along topics of mutual interest, such as a recent project on energy security and water resources.

German political foundations

Thomas Birringer, head of the KAS Middle East and North Africa Team, and Marc Frings, current KAS representative to the Palestinian Territories, spoke about KAS and its work in the latter region. Their comments and the ensuring question-and answer session were moderated by CMED Director Steven Spiegel, professor of political science at UCLA.

German political foundations, which currently number six, are unique organizations, explained Birringer. They are affiliated with political parties in Germany, but operate independently of them. KAS is associated with but not funded by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Germany, nor is it managed by the CDU.

All political foundations in Germany are funded almost entirely by individual German federal ministries, including the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung, or BMZ), with funding in direct proportion to their associated parties’ electoral representation.

Formed immediately after World War II, when they focused on German civic education and training in democracy and democratic politics, the largest foundations now have field offices all over the world and engage in what Birringer called “the political part of development work” in conjunction with local partners.

“Other countries do this type of work, but generally not through organizations associated with specific political parties,” he said. KAS operates according to a strict partnership principle: it will work in a country only if asked to do so. Much of the foundation’s work abroad focuses on promoting dialogue, he explained.

KAS presently has some 100 field offices worldwide, 14 of which are located in the Middle East. About two-thirds of the annual KAS budget of approximately 170 million euros is devoted to international work, which is initiated and managed by field offices. KAS’ international activities include, among others, training for politicians, including municipal politicians, universities, political parties, legal institutions, government institutions at all levels, think tanks, trade organizations, journalists and experts from the rule of law sector.

“I think that our doing this kind of work is perhaps more credible, because for many political issues, there is not just one answer,” said Birringer. “The answer to a political question depends on your values and ideological orientation.” In Tunisia, for example, KAS currently works with the employers’ federation to improve labor laws, while its political “competitor” foundations work with trade unions on the same issues.

“The fact that we represent many different parties means that we reflect many different views of development in a foreign country — for example, the socialist angle, the conservative angle, the liberal angle,” added field officer Marc Frings. “This contributes to the debate and is a certain advertisement for German democracy.”

Asked about the peace process, Birringer doubted that Germany could take over the role of mediator in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. “In order to take over, you need the willingness to take over and the ability to take over. I think neither is there,” he responded.

“The common wisdom in Germany is that if we want to achieve something in the world, we are too small. We must do it on the European level, which requires a joint willingness of all. And that is not easy to achieve,” added Birringer.

The work of KAS in the Palestinian Territories

Palestinian society has fragmented along social, political and economic lines — and not only in the two big territorial areas, said Frings, who heads the KAS country office in Ramallah. “There is no longer the situation,” he remarked. Palestinian leadership is perceived as deeply corrupt and, unemployment rate in the Palestinian Territories stand at 31 per cent, with youth unemployment being much higher. Political hope is absent — there is only frustration, he added. Noting that the Palestinian government was at a deep impasse, he doubted that new elections would resolve its problems.

In addition, Palestinian leadership is becoming more authoritarian, placing restrictions on political speech and demonstrations. Roughly 70 percent of the Palestinian population in the Palestinian Territories is under 30 years of age and youth have given up on the idea of revolution, said Frings. “They don’t trust their government. They seek a dignified life — a life where they can work, travel and their children will be safe,” he added.

The KAS field office in Ramallah is currently working with local partners on youth projects in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza (each tailored to the respective area). Some projects encourage youth to participate in the political process and learn to articulate what they are lacking. Others encourage entrepreneurship (often information technology–based initiatives) with mentorship provided by German businessmen. In addition, KAS is working to facilitate links between Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and the diaspora and to build bridges between Palestine, Germany and the European Union.

Marc Frings (fifth from left, back row) with Palestinian participants in an information
technology-based youth  project in the Palestinian Territories. (Photo provided by KAS.)

To understand long- and short-term trends within the Palestinian society, KAS funds opinion polls in all Palestinian areas four times a year with a respected Palestinian polling organization. And the Ramallah office, like the KAS office is Israel, regularly hosts official German delegations and communicates trends on the ground to German decision makers via written policy reports, research and the hosting of official German delegations. 

German visitors have a chance to meet with the networks of both the KAS field offices in the Palestinian Territories and Israel (where the local representative works closely with Israeli organizations and key figures), giving KAS the capability to provide whatever assistance possible on poverty and security concerns.

Support for a two-state solution in Palestine continues to hover around 50 percent, a number that rises when polls contrast the ideas of a two-state to a one-state solution. “[Palestinians] are not against it [a two-state solution] per se, but because they believe it is no longer doable,” said Frings. Palestinians frequently reject the idea of a two-state solution, he explained. They understand it to mean the current Israeli definition of pockets of sovereignty and not the clear geographic division based on the pre-1967 green line.

Even if the closely held peace proposal being developed by the Trump administration turns out to be a perfect plan, Frings feared that most Palestinians would reject it out of hand because it was the Trump administration’s plan. Among other actions, U.S. President Donald Trump has cut all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNWRA, and moved the U.S. embassy to West Jerusalem — causing a complete rift with the Palestinian leadership.

The chief problem, emphasized Frings, is that the longer the Palestinians do not engage in discussions of a two-state solution, the fewer options they will have in the end. “We have a closing door situation,” he remarked. “At one point, the Palestinians will no longer be able to propose an alternative. They should adjust accordingly.”

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Published: Friday, April 26, 2019