Monday, 3 June 2013

Israel-Palestine: breaking the impasse

Back in 1987 Lawrence Susskind, then professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published along with co-author Jeffrey Cruikshank a pioneering book about the techniques of resolving public disputes. Its title has subsequently entered the language: “Breaking the Impasse”.

“Breaking the Impasse” is the name chosen for a new business-led initiative aimed at fostering Israeli-Palestinian peace and prosperity. The project was launched at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Jordan on Sunday, 26 May 2013, by a group of prominent Israeli and Palestinian businessmen. The initiative is led jointly by Munib al-Masri, a billionaire member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and Israeli high-tech guru Yossi Vardi.

Vardi, chairman of International Technologies Ventures, said: “Last year I celebrated my 70th birthday. When the conflict began I was an ambitious young man of 25. This conflict has gone on for too long. Enough! Our group includes business people and academics from the whole spectrum – secular and religious – and all of them are determined to help with a two-state solution.”

“Breaking the Impasse” represents some 200 leading Israeli and Palestinian businessmen and also a number from other Arab states including, for example, the head of the Hikma pharmaceutical firm in Jordan. Its leaders have been meeting in private for the past year under the umbrella of the WEF and, according to Palestinian journalist Elias Zananiri, finally agreed a joint paper with parameters acceptable to both sides.

US Secretary John Kerry, who addressed the WEF meeting, was fulsome in his praise of those participating in the initiative: “They represent a courageous and visionary group of people, civic and business leaders, Israelis and Palestinians, who have I think the uncommon ability to look at an ageless stalemate and actually be able to see opportunities for progress. And even as they found plenty to disagree on – and I understand they did in the course of their discussions – even as they fully understand the difficult history that is embedded in this conflict – they refuse to underestimate the potential for the future.”

Kerry, who has proved himself tireless in this current push to reactivate the peace process, clearly sees in “Breaking the Impasse” a valuable instrument for furthering his policy, convinced that fostering economic growth will profoundly improve the chance of the political peace process.

He has, accordingly, taken a firm grip on the initiative and invested it with both US cash and dynamic leadership. He has got Quartet representative, one-time UK prime minister Tony Blair, to head a bold and ambitious plan to develop a healthy, sustainable, private-sector-led Palestinian economy intended to transform the fortunes of a future Palestinian state, “…but also, significantly,” said Kerry, “transform the possibilities for Jordan and for Israel.”

In the six weeks prior to the WEF meeting, the leaders of “Breaking the Impasse” brought together a group of business experts from around the globe representing some of the world’s largest corporations. They spent their time analyzing the opportunities for developing tourism, construction, light manufacturing, building materials, energy, agriculture, and information and communications technology (ICT) within the Palestinian economy, with the aim of mobilizing some $4 billion of investment both internationally and regionally.

Some might question the inclusion of ICT within the list, for the size and extent of ICT within the Palestinian economy is not widely known. It is, in fact, a thriving element with its own trade association – the Palestinian Information Technology Association of Companies (PIT) – representing more than 150 major ICT companies in Palestine’s emerging technology and startup system. In all, there are approximately 250 ICT companies in Palestine, with a market size of around $500 million.

Said Kerry: “The preliminary results already reported to me by Prime Minister Blair and by the folks working with him are stunning.”

And indeed they are, for the group of experts apparently believe that the Palestinian GDP could be increased by as much as 50 per cent over the next three years, and unemployment reduced by nearly two-thirds, with up to a three-fold increase in the value of agriculture and tourism.

Kerry clearly believes in the potential upsurge in commercial and economic activity that “Breaking the Impasse” could unleash, and feels passionately that economic advancement is a vital key to success in the political process. Not least of its benefits is the knock-out blow it would deliver to the malevolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, that cloaks the current upsurge in “respectable” anti-Semitism worldwide.

“Think of all that can change,” said Kerry. “That’s what should motivate us. With renewed and normal relations between Israel and the Arab nations, we could end the regional boycott of Israeli goods. New markets would open up and would connect to one another, and jobs would follow in large numbers. With renewed strength, the new neighbor states of Israel and Palestine could actually become another hub in the Middle East for technology, finance, tourism.”

In short, think of a new Hong Kong or Singapore on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean – a thriving commercial and financial enterprise zone comprising Israel, Palestine and Jordan in the first instance, and perhaps later extending to include a Hezbollah-free Lebanon. The vision is inspiring; the political slog of attempting to achieve it daunting, not to say totally discouraging.

The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu, provides us with a calm, rational approach to conquering such overwhelming despondency: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 May 2013:

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