Reflections on the Municipal Alliance for Peace in the Middle East

by | Mar 24, 2024 | 0 comments

Reflections on the Municipal Alliance for Peace in the

Middle East

Peter Knip


The Municipal Alliance for Peace in the Middle East (MAP) was a framework for Israeli-Palestinian municipal dialogue with contributions from foreign municipalities and their associations as well as other international actors. 

MAP was established at a conference in The Hague in June 2005. Its founding was endorsed by 33 Israeli and Palestinian mayors in the presence of municipal representatives from 15 countries and a range of international organizations, including UN-Habitat, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), UNDP, WHO, the Glocal Forum, and UNESCO. 

MAP was run by an International Board consisting of the Association of Palestinian Local Authorities (APLA), the Union of Local Authorities of Israel, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People (UNDP/PAPP), United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), The Association of Netherlands Municipalities (VNG), The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), the European Network of Local Authorities for Peace in the Middle East (ELPME), the City of Hamar, the City of Rome, the City of Barcelona and the City of Cologne. 

The President of the Association of Netherlands Municipalities (VNG) chaired the board. 

The establishment of MAP was the culmination of a long process of preparations and dialogue between APLA, ULAI and their international partners including the cities of Athens, Barcelona, Rome and The Hague which started in the end of the nineties. Once MAP was established, a secretariat was created in Jerusalem. Its responsibilities and tasks were to support lobbying activities, assist in the formulation and implementation of concrete (trilateral) project proposals focused on palpable local results, coordinate and foster mutual learning, and mobilize resources. 

National conflict dynamics between Israel and Palestine, in combination with the conflict between Fatah and Hamas within Palestine, the lack of sufficient support from the donor community, including financial constraints and managerial difficulties, made it very difficult to achieve concrete results. These circumstances created a culture of fear, which led to a declining willingness of both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides to continue and finally to the termination of MAP by the end of 2012. 

Below more information is given about:

  • The process that preceded the establishment of MAP: 1999-2004
  • The establishment of MAP in 2005
  • The development and termination of MAP: 2005-2012
  • Reflections on lessons learned from this attempt by the world of local governments to contribute to peace.     

The process that preceded the establishment of MAP: 1999-2004

At the request of Yasser Arafat, the first President of the Palestinian Authority, and with financial help from the Dutch government, the Association of Netherlands Municipalities (VNG) supported the establishment of the Association of Palestinian Local Authorities (APLA) in 1997.  At that time, it was the first national association of municipalities in the Arab World.  APLA’s participation in the World Organizations of Local Governments (IULA and UTO) quickly caused tensions. 

In IULA, of which the VNG and the Union of Local Authorities of Israel  (ULAI) were already members for many years, there were constant debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict between representatives of APLA and ULAI during meetings. It also endangered initiatives of rapprochement aimed at a merger between IULA and UTO (a process that led to a merger between the two organizations into UCLG in 2004) because UTO took a clearly pro-Palestinian position where IULA tried to remain neutral in the conflict. 

Aware of the risks, IULA and especially its European section, CEMR facilitated a special meeting between delegates from APLA and ULAI in Barcelona in 1999 during the World Congress of IULA. It was agreed that APLA and ULAI would embark on a process of further dialogue. Subsequently, various exchange visits took place, and discussions were held hosted by international local government partners. These culminated in a meeting between the executive administrators of APLA and ULAI at an IULA/UTO meeting in Guadalajara in June 2002. At this meeting, the first practical ideas for cooperation, in the form of a joint municipal conference in Israel and Palestine and a municipal reconstruction program, were conceived. Due to the fact that both APLA and ULAI had a close partnership with and a lot of confidence in VNG, the VNG was asked to facilitate the further process of dialogue and cooperation.

Declarations were drafted, discussed and sometimes signed. For instance, in 2002, the ‘Rome Declaration’ was adopted (but not signed). This stated that ‘while aiming at a peaceful and secure solution to the problem, both sides should promote socio-economic as well as people-to-people co-operation on the local level for the purposes of rehabilitation, economic development and prosperity, as well as the sustainability of peace’. A meeting at the Wittenburg Estate near The Hague, facilitated by VNG, took place in January 2003. A very important common understanding was reached (the Wittenburg Declaration(1)) on prevailing political issues, including violence and terrorism, the recognition of a two-state solution, Jerusalem, settlements, water, refugees, and borders. The remainder of 2003 saw no concrete progress, but the willingness of APLA and ULAI to cooperate was again confirmed in the signing of the ‘KEDKE Declaration’ at the invitation of the Central Union of Municipalities and Communes in Greece (KEDKE). 

It goes without saying that the increased violence between Israel and Palestine severely undermined the confidence that national Israeli and Palestinian leaders would reach an agreement acceptable to both parties during this period between 1999 and 2004. After an earlier period of hope, the Oslo Accords (1993), the Interim Agreement (on West Bank and Gaza, 1995), the Wye River Memorandum (1998) and the Camp David summit (2000) resulted in little change on the ground. Subsequently, the second intifada started in 2000. 

International visits ran into practical problems, such as the Israeli Defense Forces closing off roads after the Netanya hotel bombing in March 2002. The facilitation of a process of dialogue required much resilience before MAP was even established. Palestinian and Israeli municipalities alike suffered the effects of violence. Palestinian mayors and the national leadership were criticized by Israel and the international community for not making enough efforts to stop the bombings. Israeli and Palestinian mayors saw their municipalities hit by violent actions and subsequent retaliations, causing outcry over civilian casualties. Nevertheless, contacts on the local level were maintained, and agreements between APLA and ULAI that would form the basis for more elaborate cooperation were signed during this period. 

General willingness to co-operate was there. There was still hope on the ground.

The conflict became more and more volatile in this period. In 2003, Israeli President Ariel Sharon and Palestinian then-Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas were still discussing the implementation of the Road Map for Peace. Abbas managed to persuade Hamas and Islamic Jihad to agree to a ceasefire. However, the truce disintegrated with a series of suicide bombings, raids and assassinations. The construction of the separation barrier was speeded up. In autumn 2004, Israeli forces entered Gaza after a series of rocket attacks. These events all had impacts on the development of MAP. There were few opportunities for Palestinian partners to travel to Palestine, and it was difficult for APLA to be represented at international meetings. For instance, a planned roundtable session preparing for the establishment of MAP in The Hague had to be canceled. When the declaration for the founding conference was discussed at a preparatory meeting later in 2005, a reference to the ‘Israeli occupation’ was deleted from the text. 

Nevertheless, since a general agreement on political issues had already been reached in Wittenburg, MAP’s founding conference in The Hague could take place despite these difficult circumstances and focus on the objectives of MAP itself, such as initiating ‘on-the-ground cooperation through joint projects in Palestinian, Israeli and international partner municipalities, that are aimed at promoting lasting peace in the region’. The conclusion is that the overall conflict influenced the thoughts and attitudes of the involved parties and clearly resulted in obstacles and difficulties at the local level. However, the impact has not been as severe as one might have expected: it did not stop the process as a whole from progressing. The foundations for MAP were established.

Having been part of the Barcelona meeting in 1999 and all dialogue meetings and preparatory meetings for the establishment of MAP since Guadalajara 2022, I observed a special cultural phenomenon during many meetings. The meetings between the Israeli and Palestinian municipal administrators often followed the same course. It started with very sharp reciprocal accusations and fierce statements about what went wrong on the Israeli or Palestinian side in the presence of the international partners. There was often a tense atmosphere of conflict. The delegations hardly spoke to each other in the corridors. But during the first day, the request came to the president of the meeting (quite often to Wim Deetman, President of VNG) to meet as Israelis and Palestinians without international participation. Very often, they returned from this meeting with tears in their eyes, hands of Palestinian mayors around the shoulders of Israeli colleagues, and vice versa, speaking to each other. The subsequent dialogue was never completely without tension but was much more open, with a mutual willingness to look for solutions acceptable to both. 

‘We’ as foreign mediators felt the complexity of the conflict, how the conflict holds both sides captive and how both sides longed for a peace beyond reach.   

The establishment of MAP in 2005

In addition to the intensification of the political conflict, financial constraints and organizational weaknesses hindered the establishment of MAP. 

Throughout MAP’s conception phase, the financing of activities was a continuous source of concern. Although VNG had accepted the invitation to facilitate the process, they had no budget to finance it. IULA and CEMR did not have a budget either, while APLA and ULAI expected that their travel costs to international meetings would be financed. On the one hand, several municipalities were prepared to cover the costs of reception during dialogue meetings. On the other hand, The Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs initially allowed VNG to draw on funds allocated to VNG International’s technical assistance work with APLA. Direct contacts between VNG board members and ministers were required to achieve this agreement. This ensured some stability at the operational level. A grant proposal submitted in 2002 to the EU Partnership for Peace Programme was unsuccessful, with the EU citing a lack of funds. However, the application feedback also identified significant concerns:  ‘The proposed activities under the programme may be adversely affected by external circumstances that are beyond the direct control of the project. Particularly the security circumstances and travel restrictions on the West Bank can change rapidly, without prior notice.’ 

Early in 2004, however, the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs approved new funding for the dialogue through VNG. One might argue that the lack of finances in Palestine has been a positive, rather than a negative, influence on APLA’s willingness to participate in MAP. The logic being, that the lack of available finances from national Palestinian institutions increased the interest of Palestinian local authorities in tapping external funds. However, the uncertainty of funding for the process and the willingness of international parties in the process to finance the follow-up to the initiative have been a problematic factor in this phase of MAP’s development. 

In the process towards MAP, the institutional weakness of APLA was certainly a handicap. APLA was a very new unexperienced association of municipalities with hardly any visibility and results for its members. Due to its institutional weakness within Palestine, not all municipalities were already members, and the membership fees were hardly paid, which was known to ULAI and reduced its credibility. ULAI had a longer tradition since 1938 and represented since 1953 all municipalities in Israel. Differences in organizational culture between the VNG and the associations in Israel and Palestine often slowed down the pace of progress. There was often annoyance from the Dutch side about the failure to fulfill agreements or to fulfill them too slowly by the partners in Palestine and Israel. Conversely, the proverbial Dutch directness was not always appreciated. 

Last but not least one might see the differences in the motives for involvement between APLA and ULAI as a weak point. APLA had a utilitarian stance toward the idea of MAP. Its support was rooted in the needs of Palestinian municipalities. Its approach emphasized tangible, material results, because these legitimize the participation of local politicians. The dialogue, in this view, is instrumental in technical reconstruction.                                                                                                                                         Another motive was that MAP was seen as a platform through which the plight of Palestinians could be brought to international attention. For ULAI, dialogue itself was the key activity: it emphasized people-to-people actions with the support of municipal leaders. Peace-building was an important focus of ULAI’s activities at that time.

Several other factors contributed more positively to the final establishment of MAP: the involvement of international partners, the involvement of associations of municipalities and the sustained local willingness to engage in dialogue. The support from international partners has been crucial for the establishment of MAP. Apart from the World Organization of Local Governments, UCLG, the support from the strongest national associations in the world (among others, Canada, France, UK, Netherlands), several big cities, and a few UN agencies like UNDP/PAPP was essential to keep the process going. The leadership of the local government associations, especially those of APLA and ULAI, were of tremendous importance in the phase leading up to MAP. A politically charged process will not take root if the involved mayors are only speaking on behalf of their own municipalities. A mechanism to bring in the support of many municipalities is needed, and this can be realized through the presidents of associations. Despite the difficult circumstances, APLA and ULAI delegations did meet on various occasions. The involved parties were convinced that, at the local level, modest but real contributions to peace could be made. This sustained local willingness to engage in dialogue resulted in meetings and declarations and created momentum at a local level while it convinced the international partners that their preconditions for involvement, namely local commitment, were fulfilled. 

Organizing MAP’s 2005 founding conference was a true exercise in diplomacy. All the identified agencies and organizations that might attend were visited by VNG, APLA and ULAI jointly in advance. A commitment to participation in the conference and beyond was discussed and made explicit in the conference background document (2). Political and geographical spread, as well as the sizes of the attending municipalities, were finely tuned. After the establishment of MAP, a greater awareness among international organizations and municipal associations emerged. This resulted in moral support, human resources and financial assistance. 

The development and termination of MAP: 2005-2012

In the year the Municipal Alliance for Peace was established by APLA and ULAI the conflict worsened. In 2005, local elections took place, with Hamas gaining power in many municipalities, and in 2006 Hamas won legislative elections. The rise of Hamas influenced MAP in several ways. Firstly, APLA struggled to come to terms with the new reality, and as of late 2007, it still had no new Executive Board. ULAI adopted a more distant stance to the dialogue, preferring to see how matters would develop, and the Government of Israel discouraged its municipalities from talking to Hamas-run municipalities. Secondly, struggles between Fatah and Hamas greatly affected the environment in which projects were organized. It became increasingly difficult to organize MAP activities, especially in Gaza. Thirdly, the situation provided a justification for foreign partners to opt out, claiming they could not participate as long as Hamas was in power due to their own government’s standpoint. Few new MAP partners presented themselves, and some existing ones became less active. 

Financing MAP’s activities continued to be a source of concern as well. Funding opportunities became increasingly scarce as funding agencies became worried that money would benefit bodies and people, who were officially excluded on the basis of various lists and government policies. Additionally, the unstable project environment, especially for peace-building activities, made donors reluctant to advance money. A donor conference organized by APLA, ULAI, and VNG by the end of 2005 showed plenty of goodwill but no final commitments to finance. Eventually, funding was obtained from the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs to formally sustain MAP after its establishment. Since late 2005, MAP has received additional financial support from UNDP/PAPP, which has allowed it to allocate funds to Palestinian beneficiaries without legal implications, unlike many other donor organizations. However, MAP has never received massive support from the donor community in order to get the chance to create substantial visibility on the ground to influence conflict dynamics at the national level.

Managerial difficulties occurred too. A secretariat was created in Jerusalem. Its responsibilities and tasks were to support lobbying activities, to assist in the formulation and implementation of project proposals, to co-ordinate and foster mutual learning, and to mobilize resources. Political sensitivities, constant worries over funding and vulnerable personal relationships have hampered its work. The secretariat in Jerusalem was most of the time fully occupied with fine-tuning local activities with APLA and ULAI and did not have time for all other tasks. Both APLA and ULAI failed to assign staff members to deal with MAP affairs. The possibility of a secondment of a Dutch expert with substantial experience in mediation was a great disadvantage and a relevant source of information on what happened on the ground, but she was of course not able to solve all bottlenecks. After two years of operation, only a few of its objectives had been realized. Practical commitment was a problem for all the parties involved. 

With the conflict intensifying and constituencies splitting, relationships within MAP’s International Board became fraught. Mutual tolerance between APLA and ULAI at the executive level deteriorated. The impact of these managerial difficulties at the local level might have been even more severe than the impact of the conflict and emphasizes that ownership, commitment, and the organizational setup are major factors in determining the effectiveness and efficiency of a peace process as imagined by MAP. A declaration signed by APLA, ULAI and VNG in 2007 does indicate a willingness and desire to eliminate managerial difficulties – by further institutionalizing MAP and incorporating it within a foundation, by installing an international team member in the local Secretariat and by appointing a rapid intervention team of Israeli and Palestinian mayors to deal with urgent on-the-ground issues. Although the extension of the local team with an international expert turned out to be helpful in formulating concrete projects between municipalities, efforts to establish a joint Israeli-Palestinian foundation and an effective intervention team failed.  

New institutional weaknesses influenced the commitment to realizing MAP’s objectives in this phase. The significant change within the APLA membership following local elections, the practical obstacles resulting from intra-Palestinian unrest and travel restrictions, and severe tension over a ULAI Congress in Jerusalem weakened the involvement of APLA. It had four different presidents during the period covering MAP’s establishment and development, and two executive directors. This has harmed the continuity of the process. The limited opportunities to meet with the APLA presidency have hindered political decision-making. Since the elections of January 2006, the APLA General Assembly has not convened for a very long period, and a new Board was not elected, avoiding a Hamas-dominated APLA. 

Initially, the willingness to engage in real dialogue, seen in the preceding phase, continued into this one. The extensive list of 33 Palestinian and Israeli municipalities participating in the founding conference bears witness to this. APLA, ULAI and VNG reconfirmed their commitment at the political, executive and administrative level to the objectives of MAP in Jerusalem in July 2007 in a declaration signed by the associations. At the local level, sustained municipal willingness remained an important favorable factor in MAP’s development. The fact that local willingness to talk was reconfirmed by APLA and ULAI in 2007 and that Israeli and Palestinian municipalities continued to discuss project opportunities with international partners gave room for a more positive development. Concrete trilateral municipal cooperation projects were developed. Whereas the associations of municipalities and the international organizations were the drivers of the process in the earlier phase, individual municipalities were now more central. The year 2007 saw projects starting to be implemented. Two projects started in the environment field, involving 11 municipalities (four Palestinian, four Israeli, and three Dutch). Politicians, municipal staff and citizens were in regular contact to implement project activities. The formulation of three other projects on water management, sewage, and park development started in late 2007 and early 2008 and was partly implemented afterward. 

One special factor in this phase is that municipal peace initiatives in the form of concrete projects draw heavily on the internal organizations and on the competencies of the involved municipalities. In the MAP environment, the diplomatic qualities and technical competencies of local civil servants and local politicians in the projects needed to be high. Other organizations could assist, but in the projects, they cannot substitute for municipalities. It has been stated a couple of times that mayors in Israel and Palestine had to deal with issues of legitimacy and popular support. This is equally true of the foreign municipalities in trilateral cooperation projects. Legitimacy and popular support must be carefully maintained both in the field and at home. We might observe here a certain discrepancy between the ideals of the international staff of associations of municipalities and UN Agencies on the one hand who were inclined to think that mayors and councilors are ‘poised to be the new diplomats of our world’ and that, ultimately, local governments could play crucial roles in peacebuilding in the world and local government representatives on the other hand who felt limited by the expectations of their population. 

The conflict dynamics in these years increasingly affected the possibilities for constructive dialogue and cooperation. In the summer of 2007, the Fatah-Hamas conflict led to Hamas taking control of the Gaza Strip, which in practice divided the Palestinian Authority in two. By the end of 2008, after rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli cities by Hamas, an Israeli operation against Hamas began with an intense bombardment of the Gaza Strip, followed by a ground invasion in January 2009. Amidst this deteriorating political situation we undertook one last major initiative to bring all key actors together outside the conflict area in Germany, in close cooperation with the city of Cologne by the end of 2011. The Cologne Memorandum for Cooperation Activities (3) reflects the results of the meeting in which new commitments to intentions for more and better cooperation were formulated. However in the months after this congress

MAP was increasingly confronted with messages from mayors in Palestine who did not want to be involved in dialogue with Israeli colleagues any longer because of the continued settler policies and oppression by Israel or did not dare to be involved because it would undermine their legitimacy.

We could increasingly observe a culture of fear, more risk avoidance and a stronger enemy image of Israel amongst Palestinian local government representatives. In the meantime, we also observed increased hostile feelings against Palestinians amongst Israeli local government representatives and a declining belief that local contacts with Palestine would contribute to peace. In my personal contacts.  I also felt a certain feeling of hopelessness and a growing number of Palestinians who did not believe any longer in a two-state solution. 

After a relatively quiet period in which, under the pressure of the Obama government, some progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations seemed possible, continued rocket attacks originating from the Gaza Strip led to Operation Pillar of Defense by Israel in the Gaza Strip in November 2012 in which many Palestinians were killed. In combination with a lack of progress in many other fields of disputes between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the willingness to participate in contacts with Israeli partners declined. It was increasingly felt that the time for peace dialogues and concrete cooperation ‘from below’ was over, and MAP died more or less a silent death. A last initiative to bring the main Israeli and Palestinian partners together in The Netherlands failed because APLA informed VNG that they could not account any longer for forma land informal meetings with ULAI. With finances from the Dutch government, VNG could only continue several projects for municipalities on the West Bank.

Reflections on lessons learned from this attempt by the world of local governments to contribute to peace. 

• A process such as MAP requires a more conducive environment that offers a realistic perspective on positive change through dialogue and cooperation. The influence of a single municipality is limited, especially in complex conflict regions such as the Middle East. Initiatives from the local government side can work when parties at the national level are stalemated, but only if national governments leave room for it: politically, practically, and legally. Ideally, there should already be a rapprochement. 

• This type of process from below by local governments is very dependent on donor funding. Cumbersome bureaucratic procedures, donor preconditions and political preferences have resulted in missed opportunities and slowed down the dialogue process.

• The capacity of the main local stakeholders is important, and the qualities of individual local politicians and civil servants matter. Furthermore, there is no reason to assume that foreign municipalities automatically have sufficient capacity and quality.

• The MAP case presents a dilemma of legitimacy versus efficiency and effectiveness in municipal peace initiatives. While having many international actors and peace initiatives under one umbrella creates legitimacy, streamlining efforts, or at least coordinating between different initiatives, which is necessary to retain efficiency and prevent the available capacity of local stakeholders from becoming exhausted, was often extremely difficult. 

• Trilateral technical cooperation can be a very useful basis for dialogue. Third parties can provide technical and financial assistance, a neutral zone for meetings, and access to their network. On the downside, however, trilateral cooperation may make project development more complex than in a bilateral situation and is also more difficult to organize than dialogue. 

• True commitment and ownership by local stakeholders—municipalities and their associations—require the support of mayors, councils, citizens, and civil society, but also concrete, visible results. Tangible outputs can be the cement in cooperation exercises. 

• A process like MAP needs extreme patience, constant nurturing (politically and often financially) and regular face-to-face contacts, which initially were more effective when they took place outside the conflict region. 

• Conflict resolution, development aid, and community development are not mutually exclusive; they can go hand in hand and reinforce each other. 

• To explore the added value of local government involvement in peace-building and conflict resolution, national, international, and supranational governments should acknowledge such a role and operate accordingly.


(1) Wittenburg Joint Understanding, January 2003. See: wp-content/uploads/2024/04/Wittenburg-Joint-Declaration.pdf

(2) MAP-Declaration, June 2005. See: Map-declaration-june-2005/

(3) Cologne Memorandum of Agreement for Cooperation Activities. See: Cologne-mayors-conference/

Used Abbreviations:

* MAP = Municipal Alliance for Peace in the Middle East

* UCLG = United Cities and Local Governments

* UNDP = United Nations Development Programme

* WHO = World Health Organization

* UNESCO = United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

* APLA = Association of Palestinian Local Authorities 

* ULAI = Union of Local Authorities of Programme 

* UNDP/PAPP = UNDP Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People 

* VNG = Association of Netherlands Municipalities

* FCM = Federation of Canadian Municipalities 

* ELPME =  European Network of Local Authorities for Peace in the Middle East

* IULA = International Union of Local Authorities

* UTO = United Towns Organization

* CEMR = Council of European Municipalities and Regions

* KEDKE = Central Union of Municipalities and Communes in Greece


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