In search of the leverage to reopen the deadlocked Israel-Palestinian peace process, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived over the weekend at the lowest point on earth. The World Economic Forum, the Swiss-based organization that regularly gathers together political and business leaders, had convened a regional meeting at the Dead Sea (elevation: –1,401 ft.), and among the titans of industry who flock to the prestigious WEF gatherings, the American diplomat found enthusiastic allies in the effort to coax a resumption in negotiations that began more than two decades ago and have been stalled for at least five years.
“Now I know the credibility of anything called the peace process is at a very low ebb,” Kerry said on Sunday, at the close of the two-day forum. “Believe me, I understand that.” The point has come home to him in four trips to the Middle East in the past four months, shuttling between an Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has historically been less than eager to negotiate a final peace deal, and a Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, who has for six years governed only the Palestinians who live in the West Bank (Gaza, the other Palestinian-run territory, came under the control of Hamas, the militant Islamist group, after winning a battle with Abbas’s Fatah faction in 2007).
But if politicians remain in their corners, business leaders are stepping up — both to pressure elected leaders to re-engage in talks and to help invigorate a West Bank economy currently overwhelmingly dependent on foreign aid, perhaps in hopes of buying time for the political process.
A group of 300 Israeli and Palestinian business leaders announced a “Breaking the impasse” public-relations campaign intended to assure reluctant political leaders that a constituency exists for taking risks for peace. “We want to provide the politicians with the feeling that the biggest part of Israel is supporting negotiations,” said Yossi Vardi, an Israeli businessman who made a fortune in hi-tech. “The biggest risk is we begin to treat the conflict like a chronic disease, that it’s something that cannot be solved.”
Vardi was joined on the podium by Munib al-Masri, a West Bank tycoon whose published net worth is $1.6 billion. “From 1999 til now we haven’t moved,” al-Masri said. “We want to move.”
Kerry added American business leaders to the mix. Without naming names or venturing into detail, the diplomat described the broad outlines of an economic project that he said has been taking shape over the past six weeks on the West Bank, “a groundbreaking plan for the Palestinian economy” that he called “bigger, bolder and more ambitious than anything since Oslo 20 years ago.” The reference was to the treaty named for the Norwegian capital where it was negotiated in secret between Israeli and Palestinian diplomats. The Oslo Accords were intended to lead within five years to an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, the Palestinian Authority that was intended to rule as a transitional body still administers most of the Palestinian parts of the West Bank, a Hamas government runs Gaza, and Israeli troops continue to occupy the West Bank and control the perimeter of Gaza. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Kerry called the economic plan “more transformative than incremental, and different than anything we have tried before.” Kerry said the hope is “to mobilize $4 billion of investment” in the West Bank, in tourism, construction, light manufacturing, building materials and information technology, among other fields. “The preliminary results,” he said, “are stunning.” Without elaborating on the makeup of the expert “teams” he said were assembling the plans, Kerry said they estimate the GDP of the West Bank could be increased by 50% in three years and unemployment cut by two-thirds. Tourism could triple, he said, and construction could add 100,000 jobs.
“I am happy to say that Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas support this initiative,” Kerry said — an important point, in that Israel’s military controls construction and building on most of the West Bank. Said Kerry: “There’s just no doubt that investment in business and investment in peace can turn all this around.”
How that will happen is not altogether clear. In past negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians remained a significant distance from agreement on fundamental issues, including the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the claims of Palestinian refugees to return to Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. Kerry’s speech strained to establish a causal link between economic development and political progress, but in the general bonhomie of a WEF gathering, the idea seemed to be that finding some point of agreement might lead to more.
“Standing here with you at the lowest point on earth, “ Kerry said, “I believe we can reach for the heights.”