Above: Heather Johnston, Ashraf Jabari and Avi Zimmerman at the Israeli-Palestinian Economic Forum in Jerusalem
While efforts from Washington to bring about a political peace between Palestinians and Israel continue to be fruitless, a different answer is coming out of Alabama.
The Birmingham-based U.S. Israel Education Association and the Judea Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry held an Israeli-Palestinian International Economic Forum at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on Feb. 20 and 21, with Israeli and Palestinian business leaders working together to advance economic opportunities in the territories.
Over 140 registered for the event, twice what was expected. About 70 Palestinian business leaders were among those at the event.
As part of the conference, on Feb. 20, the chamber announced the Judea Samaria Regional Development Financing Initiative, to integrate economic planning and advance joint entrepreneurship between Israelis and Palestinians who live in the area.
The chamber was founded by Israeli Avi Zimmerman and Palestinian Ashraf Jabari.
Zimmerman, who is from Ariel, said the chamber and USIEA initiated the forum “to promote business opportunities for all residents in the region. The process we launch today begins with developing an inventory of projects in the fields of tech, industry, tourism, environment, energy and infrastructure.”
A statement from the two groups noted that “Political realities on the ground, including anti-normalization policies of the Palestinian Authority and mobility restrictions from Israel’s security policy in the West Bank, have historically acted as barriers to economic progress. But through the RDFI, the Chamber and USIEA are attempting to help businesses in the West Bank break through or go around such obstacles. This achievement has started a process that is mapping out prospective partnerships and opportunities in various sectors in the West Bank.”
Jabari, a Palestinian business and community leader from Hebron, said such dialogue and communication was the only way forward for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. “We need to break the fence between Israelis and Palestinians and to know that there’s no other way but to work together. We can’t keep going like we have over 25 years and waiting for a political settlement. We don’t have time to wait for politicians.”
“The political process will continue,” said U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who addressed the Forum. “We’re hopeful we will make real progress on that in the near future, but it is never a substitute or means to delay the opportunity to provide a better future for the Jews and Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, who are entitled to the very same things that we all want for our families.”
Friedman said the event shows prospects for a true peace. “Not the peace that comes from a piece of paper, but the real peace that is in the hearts and souls of everyone here.”
The U.S. stands with Palestinians and Israelis in that effort, and “no one can or should tell you what is possible. No one should limit your dreams or scuttle your aspirations.”
He added, “as the children of Abraham, there is far more that unites us than divides us. We are not destined to fight. Every one of us believes in the essential dignity and holiness of every human being, and it is our sacred task to bring that holiness and dignity to our everyday life.”
As part of the forum, a group of Israeli mayors and Palestinian mukhtars from the territories held a meeting about the RDFI. According to Zimmerman, the forum and the closed meeting were very productive first steps in a process of long-term economic growth in the West Bank.
Financial tools and models will focus on two models, Zimmerman said. A short-term investment fund will focus on enterprise, and a long-term bond bank model will work on infrastructure investment.
“This session was very important for moving forward,” said Zimmerman. “Although this is not a peace summit, I’m pleasantly surprised when discussions on joint and mutual economic growth naturally evolve into a conversation of peace. We have not often had this opportunity to hold an Israeli-Palestinian sub-sovereign meeting, and I would like to thank every Israeli mayor and Palestinian mukhtar who joined us.”
The USIEA works to boost U.S. support for the joint economic endeavors, both in the grassroots and the governmental realms. As most official trips by U.S. representatives do not include the territories, USIEA has arranged visits for numerous Congressional representatives and senators into the territories beyond the Green Line, the 1949 cease-fire line from Israel’s War of Independence.
The USIEA also arranged for Friedman’s first official visit into the territories, for a chamber gathering last fall.
The economic forum is different because it involves “an unstoppable people’s movement,” said USIEA Executive Director Heather Johnston. “It was important for our U.S. leadership to see what can happen in the way of a new future for Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank. The USIEA has connected with the JSChamber, the Milken Innovation Center, the U.S. administration and the Israeli government to magnify this grassroots movement between business and the RDFI. That’s what the Forum is for today, which was designed to show the future economic outlook and potential for the West Bank.”
In the absence of a political peace plan, Johnston said, they looked at what would be possible to accomplish in the territories.
Among the former participants on USIEA trips is Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who addressed the forum.
Lankford has fought to include language in funding bills that would encourage business development, “that when Palestinians and Israelis work together, we help them. For the first time ever, the United States has stepped in and said, ‘Where neighbors are helping neighbors and partnering together, we should consider that a good thing’.”
He added, “Sometimes in the world of politics, things move exceptionally slowly,” but when something big happens, “the first people who come to help are our neighbors. Eventually, the government gets there, but it’s always neighbors who help neighbors first.”
Zimmerman also characterized the effort as free trade “amongst neighbors,” and said there are often more challenges within the territories than with Israeli-Palestinian business ties across the Green Line.
The chamber is working to “cultivate and promote an integrated business community to ensure regional stability and substantiate long-term sustainability.”
Jabari noted that 200,000 Palestinian workers enter Israel every day, and there is about $800 million in trade each month across the Green Line.
Moshe Lev-Ran, International Export Manager of Twitoplast Ltd., spoke about the value of Israelis and Palestinians working together as neighbors. Twitoplast, which manufactures supplies for the air conditioning industry, is located in the Barkan Industrial Park near Ariel, and as the park is in the territories, it is a target of the boycott-Israel movement and anti-normalization efforts by Palestinian activists.
Last October, a Palestinian gunman killed two Israelis at a different factory in the park, an incident that was seen as an aberration in what is otherwise praised as an oasis of cooperation.
Lev-Ran noted that the atmosphere of his factory is like a big family. The plant manager is Palestinian, Lev-Ran said, and when his one-year-old daughter had cancer, the company arranged and paid for her care at the best hospital in Israel, and took care of 18 months of follow-up treatment. She is now cancer-free.
On Sukkot, when the Jewish workers are off for the holiday, the Palestinian workers open and close the plant for an eight-hour shift. “We trust them fully,” Lev-Ran said. “This is the relationship between us.”
Zimmerman said the forum and the chamber aren’t getting into the politics of the Middle East, though they have to work with politicians to help facilitate a better business climate. “There is no commitment or agenda here for a particular political outcome” or type of peace deal, he said, noting that the members of the all-volunteer organization “don’t even agree on where we are supposed to be going. It’s not even on the table,” just a focus on economic development and improving daily life.
Jabari said Palestinians “need to work together with Israeli people — people need to know that these are our neighbors and we live beside them… We want to stop the bloodshed. Everything will come together if we come together with our hearts. If Palestinians and Jewish people can’t work together, we will have pain for the next 50 years.”