The Abraham Path: The evolution of the enterprise over time
One of the most divisive regions of the world is the Middle East. The Middle East is fraught with conflict not simply because of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian territorial dispute but also because of a host regional and sectarian struggles that are tearing this area of the world apart. With this in mind: "in the face of daunting barriers, the Abraham Path Initiative envisions uncovering and revitalizing a route of cultural tourism that follows the path of Abraham and his family some 4000 years ago across the Middle East…As it takes fuller shape, the Path variously serves as a catalyst for sustainable tourism and economic development, a platform for the energy and idealism of young people, a beacon for pilgrims and peacebuilders, as well as a focus for seemingly endless media inquiries from reporters, producers" (Leary, Sebenius, & Weiss 2009: 1-2). The idea behind the Abraham Path Initiative is both simple and powerful: the Abraham Path retraces the path of the Biblical patriarch Abraham through the modern Middle East, connecting nations of various nationalities and faiths, including Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. The creation of a 'path' allows pilgrims to walk the trail, engage in homestays along the way, and to enjoy a safe journey through these spiritual destinations. Along the way, the traveler will be exposed to a variety of cultures and worldviews.
The greater ideal of the API is to build bridges between historically-conflicted nations by finding mutual sources of cooperation, facilitating both tourism and a celebration of the local cultures. It is designed to serve as a "non-political tool to get countries and people working together. It's the interaction of many sectors of society that can help to build relationships and break down stereotypes," both in the Middle East and in the West (Leary, Sebenius, & Weiss 2009: 9). Middle Eastern nations who can gain the economic advantages of tourism by participating in the API will work together; tourists from other regions in the world who are attracted to connecting with the common Judeo-Christian-Islamic patriarch Abraham by retracing his footsteps will gain a more positive perception of the Middle East.
The central force of the API began in the West, with what might be called a source of persuasive influence upon the national participants. "With Roger Fisher as the senior figure and his contemporary, Bruce Patton, Ury helped to found the Harvard Negotiation Project, later to become a core element of the Program on Negotiation, a Harvard-based, interuniversity consortium" (Leary, Sebenius, & Weiss 2009: 6). However, the ideal was always one of empowerment to ensure that the participating countries could develop their own path and philosophy as regional actors.
This suggests that the API began with the right philosophy: one criticism of American intervention is that it imposing and overly domineering in nature. The API avoided forcing American concepts of democracy and an American worldview upon nations for which such notions are not 'organic' to their mindset. This new directional focus of the API may begin with an American concept but ultimately shifts to allow the affected nations take the helm of project and direct it as they need. The Abraham Path is rooted in a very Middle Eastern concept of hospitality rather than individualistic democracy: "Abraham Path invokes the ritual of host and guest. By definition, these engagements require collaboration" (Leary, Sebenius, & Weiss 2009: 16).
What is the right organization and governance for the API?
As the API takes shape, three emerging organizational entities have begun to evolve: the international center, the in-country operational entities, and the supporting organizations in countries like Brazil and the UK (Friends of the Abraham Path). Given that the emphasis of the organization has been upon the empowerment of the Path countries themselves, ultimately in-country operational entities must have greater sway. The need to ensure physical safety on the path also seems best left to the countries that have an intimate knowledge of the needs of their region on the ground. "It is critical that the Abraham Path be configured as a series of local projects, arising out of a community's intrinsic interests, rather than be imposed in any way" (Leary, Sebenius, & Weiss 2009: 17). The Holy Land has long been a site of conflict with various religious groups vying for the right to call it their own. This is contrary to the spirit of the Abraham Path, which ultimately stresses cooperation, mutuality, and shared history rather than exclusiveness and it is hoped that this spirit will eventually infuse other negotiations and relationships within the region.
Ultimately, the API international center can coordinate and advise the nations as can external supporting 'friends' but the energy and the actual governance behind the Path must be based in the region. Once again, one of the dangers is that the Path might be tainted with seeming to be a 'foreign'-derived project. To earn grounds-eye support for the project requires a specifically Middle Eastern perspective and supporting organizations can step in where there is conflict (for example, if a government is resistant to talking to a neighboring country because of longstanding animosity) but this should only come about as the result of a request from a domestic source, not because of a decision made in Cambridge or Washington D.C. The Path must have the appearance and the reality of being disassociated from politics. That is why ultimately, the Path is best thought of as a loosely-linked entity with strategic partners with mutual interests in preserving the safety of the Path.
Of course, some centralized organizational authorities may be necessary to mediate conflicts as they arise between parties. But it is essential that any centralized power remains neutral, to quell the risks of any protests which might arise from groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been extremely mistrustful of the creation of the Path, because of perceived connections with Israeli interests.
The initial association of the API with Harvard University was deemed to be a critical component of its early success, and continuing to foster academic partnerships seems essential to maintaining both the appearance of and true objectivity in terms of how the Path is administrated. "The Abraham Path Initiative's affiliation and academic partnership with Harvard's Program on Negotiation played a critical role in its early growth and credibility, particularly in the Middle East… [without Harvard] the Abraham Path might have engendered even more distrust: 'As one of the oldest major academic institutions in the world, with perhaps the greatest brand, it buys credibility in a no man's land. It creates operating room and times so that we can be known and help build an accurate portrayal of what we are trying to do" (Leary, Sebenius, & Weiss 2009: 12).
Parallel v. sequential emphasis?
Spreading resources too thin is perhaps inevitable, given the ambitious scope of the project and the number of countries through which the Path stretches. Furthermore, there is also a natural desire not to seem to play 'favorites' and favor one nation with additional funding or support. Of course, certain components of the Path may need additional attention because of security and political conflicts. But the stress must always be about mutual cooperation and "shared prosperity requires those in the region have access to an inclusive umbrella identity" (Leary, Sebenius, & Weiss 2009: 11). This is particularly the case regarding contested territories between the Israelis and the Palestinians: once again, even the appearance of favoritism and impropriety must be avoided. The emphasis must always be on maintaining and improving the Path as a whole, rather than viewing the trail as self-enclosed parts. Rather than attempting to 'change' and 'improve' the region (although there are obviously hopes that the existence of the AP will create an atmosphere more conducive to peacekeeping in the future), the emphasis should be on preserving an old path and an old tradition integral to the Middle East of caring for wandering strangers. "The API is a non-political, non-sectarian organization open to and honoring all cultures and faiths. Its mission is not mainly seen as creating a new path, but rather helping people to rediscover an ancient path" (Leary, Sebenius, & Weiss 2009: 12). Successful evidence of maintaining that peace and the viability of facilitated tourism on the trail is the best 'argument' for its continued existence.
What should be the scope and nature of API actions to create the AP?
At present, the scope of the API is relatively ambiguous. The idea of having a foreign operator act as a co-partner involved in the API could be extremely problematic, given the history of colonization in the region by Western powers. Even if this is currently not seen as a problem, in the future problems could arise if tensions erupt over an episode on the trail, causing fundamentalists to accuse a Western-based tour owner/operator as having ulterior motives. Drawing clear delineations between what the API will and will not do would seem…