By Lisa Woolfson
Within the more than 5,000 pages of the budget bill was a few pages establishing an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, with a budget of $250 million over a period of five years.
Those few pages were 16 years in the making for 44-year-old Avi Meyerstein, with help from the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a coalition of 125 organizations working toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Meyerstein is the founder and president of ALLMEP, as well as a partner at the law firm Husch Blackwell.
Meyerstein lives in Rockville with his wife, Dana, and three daughters. They attend B’nai Israel.
Meyerstein’s interest in Israel began years ago, growing up in a Zionist household in Pikesville. He attended Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, where he met his wife, and Camp Moshava. Meyerstein studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Columbia University and spent a year abroad in Israel, where he interned at the Israeli consulate and the Knesset.
He was in Israel in the late ‘90s, a period of much violence. While there, he met people involved with Israeli-Palestinian projects.
Meyerstein attended law school at Georgetown University. He was working at a D.C. law firm, Patton Boggs, when the Second Intifada broke out in Israel.
“I was watching it becoming very violent in the Second Intifada and was trying to figure out if there was a way that I could get involved,” he recalled.
To Meyerstein, it seemed like whenever Israeli-Palestinian peace talks failed it was because of a lack of trust. Political leaders didn’t think there was public support. The public wanted peace but didn’t think the other side agreed. He knew of some organizations doing people-to-people cooperation, fostering relationships between individual Israelis and Palestinians.
“I wanted to find a way to help these organizations that were literally connecting people who otherwise never meet,” he said. “They don’t live far apart but they are completely separated.”
When he reached out to these organizations, he found that they had so little money that they had waiting lists of willing participants who couldn’t be accommodated.
He brought people from these organizations to D.C. to tell their stories.
He wanted to acquire money so they could broaden their impact. Meyerstein recruited volunteer attorneys by making this his pro bono project at Patton Boggs. Some of the volunteer attorneys were experts at navigating Capitol Hill and had connections to policy members and embassies.
In 2006, Meyerstein founded ALLMEP, and the volunteer project became a professional organization.
ALLMEP launched their effort to create an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace with a big conference in Washington in 2009. They had about a thousand meetings with ambassadors and prime ministers’ offices, at Israeli, Palestinian and other embassies.
Legislation on the fund was introduced about six times, but this is the first time it’s passed through Congress. Assuming the bill passes, Meyerstein wants the incoming administration to use the $50 million a year to launch an international fund with the United States’ allies.
Meyerstein believes an international fund working on this issue every day could lead to a real grassroots effort supporting diplomacy between the Israelis and Palestinians.
“The real heroes of all of this are the people on the ground, thousands of people who are working together, Israelis and Palestinians, in a climate where that is both unusual and in some cases, looked down upon,” he said.
Lisa Woolfson is a freelance writer.