Hopeful news from the Middle East: business owners weigh in for peace


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) speaks with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa at the Dead Sea on May 26, 2013.



DEAD SEA, Jordan — Covering events in the Middle East for close to half a century has made me wary about predicting any prospects for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. I have seen too many false dawns. Peace plans, road maps, face-to-face negotiations, indirect negotiations, talks about talks, special envoys and American officials on Middle East shuttles — they have all failed to resolve the region’s most intractable problem.

So I was surprised to learn something new at the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting on the Middle East, a gathering of business executives, government officials, and media leaders hosted by Jordan's King Abdullah at the Dead Sea.

The news wasn’t the impassioned plea delivered by Israeli President Shimon Peres for a resumption of peace talks. His audience had heard it all before. Israel's elder statesman won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for helping achieve an interim agreement with the Palestinians, but these days he plays only a ceremonial role in his country's affairs. It will take more than speeches to revive negotiations that have been dead for almost five years.

Nor did it look like a breakthrough when Secretary of State John Kerry announced here a three-year plan to funnel $4 billion of private investment into the Palestinian economy on the West Bank. Sprinkling money on the problem is not the answer as long as the Palestinians cannot control their own future, or even the movement of people and goods in their territories.

The hopeful news from this conference is not a political or government initiative. It comes from a group of Israeli and Palestinian business owners and chief executives who claim to represent the "silent majority" of the Israeli and Palestinian populations that favors a negotiated solution of two sovereign states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace. They are fed up and frustrated by the inability of politicians on both sides to bridge their differences, and have decided to remain silent no longer. In the words of one of movement's organizers, "enough is enough."

This unlikely group of agitators call it the Breaking the Impasse initiative, and it's not an insignificant grass roots movement. There have been small-scale business ventures by Israelis and Palestinians in the past, but this is something else. It includes about 300 Israeli and Palestinian business leaders that employ tens of thousands of workers and claim to represent 30 percent of the Israeli and Palestinian economies. That's not a constituency political leaders can easily afford to ignore.

The initiative was started quietly a year ago at a WEF meeting in Istanbul and developed with the help of the Forum in back channel communications and secret meetings in several countries. The instigators were a courtly West Bank Palestinian billionaire, Munib al-Masri, and a plainspoken Israeli venture capitalist, Yossi Vardi.

Masri, who owns the largest Palestinian conglomerate in the occupied territories, said that he and the other Palestinian business leaders who have given their support to the initiative are taking a personal risk, but "I have to speak my conscience." They risk being treated as traitors for joining hands with Israeli businessmen.

In one of the most emotional moments of the Dead Sea conference, Masri told the audience that his grandson was wounded by Israeli gunfire in a peaceful Palestinian demonstration two years ago and is now confined to a wheelchair. "In the name of those who suffered," he said, "we urge the leaders in this room and those who are represented to end this conflict."

And in a reference to the so-called security barrier the Israeli government has built to confine the Palestinians to their territories, Masri echoed President Reagan's famous Berlin speech, and called on the Israeli government to "tear down this terrible wall." That brought loud applause from the audience, which included most of the Israeli and Palestinian businessmen who have joined the Break the Impasse movement.

The audience, myself included, were well aware that the initiative raises more questions than answers. It leaves the details of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement to the eventual negotiators, but refers to the Arab peace plan, which includes permanent borders based on the 1967 ceasefire lines and the sharing of Jerusalem as the capital of both states.

Like a number of leading Israeli businessmen, Vardi the high tech king is more left wing than the current Israeli government, which does not accept the Arab peace plan. He urged political leaders to make the necessary "painful compromises."

President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, has refused to negotiate with the Israelis while they continue to build settlements in the occupied territories, and seemed less pleased than President Peres with the businessmen's push for compromises. But he grudgingly admitted, "Who knows, maybe peace will come out of this initiative ... Economics are pragmatic."

I remain pessimistic about the chances of a real and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. But when Palestinian and Israeli businessmen are willing to speak up and take risks for it, that looks to me like potentially good news. And if this does not sound too cynical, I would add that these angry businessmen are putting their mouths where their money is.

That could be a good thing. But then again, this is the Middle East.