LONDON-It started with a little-known Norwegian diplomat, a small group of academics, and a crowded hotel room. The diplomat, Terje Rød-Larsen, had assembled the group to devise an unlikely plan to take on the task of Middle East peace. For a brief, shining moment, it looked like he had succeeded: Rød-Larsen’s discussions would ultimately lead to the Oslo Accords, signed on the White House lawn twenty-four years ago by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. Last week, the hit play that dramatizes that story, Oslo, was the toast of Broadway, where it won the Tony Award for best play of 2017.
For me, the most hopeful part of Oslo wasn’t what happened before the handshake, but what happened the next day. At a ceremony at the U.S. State Department, President Bill Clinton met with several hundred Arab-American and Jewish-American businessmen and women, all of whom had committed to making investments that would create jobs and increase economic opportunity in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza once peace brought more stability to the region. But those investments never happened, because every time progress was made, a bomb went off, goading Israel to close its borders, tanking the Palestinian economy.
In the 24 years since Oslo, politicians of all political stripes have tried and failed to bring peace to the Middle East. Even optimists today believe that the political prospects for peace are dead. History would suggest that Palestinian leaders will continue to provoke and Israeli leaders will continue to build settlements – as they have for decades, because those are the constraints placed upon them by their constituencies. But business leaders could provide a new opening beyond the posturing because business speaks a more pragmatic language. In my experience, Israeli and Palestinian business leaders work wonderfully together, because they don’t care about headlines – they care about bottom lines. As we think about a way forward in Israel today, maybe it’s time for business to lead.
Admittedly, this is a suggestion I’ve made before. After leaving the White House, Clinton created the Clinton Global Initiative, which similarly recruited businesses to commit specific deliverables to meet a range of global needs. Six years ago, I suggested that maybe it was time to create a Middle East version of CGI – what I called the “Swords to Plowshares Initiative” – where Clinton would use his talents to get investors to pledge that if a solution between Israelis and Palestinians could be reached, a wave of new jobs and investments would follow.
Unfortunately, Clinton didn’t take me up on the idea and earlier this year, CGI closed its doors, a casualty of the 2016 election. But it might be tailor-made for the 36 year-old former CEO of a multibillion dollar real estate empire who has extensive ties to business leaders in the US and Middle East and just happens to be the person newly appointed by President Donald Trump to lead U.S. efforts to restart the peace process: his senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
As Kushner proved again last week on his first solo trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah – where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – his current pitch is what Texans call “all hat and no cattle.” His ambition for peace is not yet backed by a meaningful “army” for peace or a credible lever that will entice Israelis and Palestinians to look at the same age-old questions around peace in new ways.
But business – both Israelis and Palestinians together – can be that army. In Israel, nothing would be better for the bottom line than stable, prosperous trading partners in the region and a stop to the European Union’s flirtation with the rising Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israeli industry.
How can Kushner draw on the pragmatism and resources of business to create the conditions for peace? Three ways.
First: partner with visionary industrialists like Stef Wertheimer to show an alternative vision of the future in which Jews and Palestinians work as partners.
Wertheimer, an entrepreneur who fled Nazi persecution and fought for Israeli independence, has become one of the richest men in Israel not by running away from peace, but embracing its possibilities. Since 1982, Wertheimer has created seven industrial parks (six in Israel, one in Turkey) that have launched hundreds of export firms, creating over 5,000 jobs, and generating billions in sales – all while employing Jews and Palestinians who live, work, train, and coexist alongside each other. His parks provide economic opportunity, but are also committed to technical training, cultural exchanges, and art – in short, to building the things that define our common humanity. As he told me when I met him five years ago, “When people are busy working, they have no time to engage in terrorism – nor do they have reason to.”
His dream, as he described it to me in 2012, is to create 100 industrial parks stretching from Turkey to Egypt, employing and training Arabs and Israelis in industrial professions while helping to create the industrial base from which Arab states can launch modern economies. In the late 1990s, Wertheimer personally met with former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to build an industrial park in Gaza. He had signed agreement from two Israeli Prime Ministers – Netanyahu and Ehud Barak – and commitments from other leading businesses, including Daimler Chrysler. A week before they were scheduled to break ground, the Second Intifada began, derailing the plans – but not Wertheimer’s vision.
Kushner could lead an effort to connect like-minded entrepreneurs across the world to financiers ready to fund such projects the moment peace breaks out. Some believe that with the right investors, the West Bank could become the Silicon Valley of the Middle East. There’s at least one U.S. investor who believes so: in 2013, the sale of a company that Wertheimer founded in 1969, which became one of the world’s leading suppliers of turbine and airplane blades, was completed for $7 billion. The buyer? Billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Second, Kushner could work with Palestinian and Israeli private sector leaders to push for changes in Israeli policy that physically deny Palestinians access to employment opportunities in Israel.
In the West Bank alone, over 30% of Palestinians below the age of 30 are unemployed, and the majority of jobs available to them are in Israel. Despite near-consensus by the security establishment that Israel should increase the number of Palestinians it allows into Israel to work, Netanyahu has shown a reluctance to grant new permits. Not only does this policy decimate Palestinian households, Israeli businesses suffer from unreliable access to labor. Again, the Wertheimer rule applies: if they are busy working, they won’t have the time or the desire to pursue violence.
Kushner could establish a forum for Israeli businesses and security officials to voice their concerns to Netanyahu, amplify the growing list of Israeli businesses in need of skilled labor, and press the Israeli government to grant more permits as an act of enlightened self-interest.
Third, businesses in Israel have an outsized ability to tackle the disenchantment that has plagued the Israeli and Palestinian publics for decades.
If policymakers in Israel and the Palestinian territories are to take the necessary steps towards peace, they need to know that their constituents have given them the space to do so. Initiatives like Breaking the Impasse (BTI), a coalition of Israeli and Palestinian corporations that collectively control over one third of Israel’s Gross Domestic Product, have begun to tackle this problem. During the 2014 negotiations, BTI ran a 1 million shekel ad campaign – about $280,000 USD – designed to stir Israeli support for a two-state solution.
Business leaders by themselves won’t bring about peace. But as a former Israeli defense official tells me, “We do not need peace; we need peaceful relations,” suggesting instead that business could at least create long-term stability and prosperity. These stable conditions, he argues, could ultimately lead to a long-term agreement. I couldn’t agree more.
If the Trump Administration could line up hundreds of business leaders pledging direct investments and concrete commitments in the region if a solution is reached, it would help make the benefits of peace material instead of ethereal. It might be enough of a lever to spark compromise that could create real momentum for change. In the process, Trump and Kushner – working together with business – can solidify their reputations as dealmakers in ways that will create a legacy that last for generations.
After all, it was a small group of dedicated academics, sharing meals in crowded Norwegian hotel rooms, who brought public and private together to break down these walls once before. Maybe it can happen again. As Terje Rød-Larsen said of his strategy to bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians, in words that could just as easily been spoken by Stef Wertheimer, “It is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are.”