DEAD SEA, Jordan — A group of leading Israeli and Palestinian businessmen on Sunday afternoon unveiled a new business-led push for Israeli-Palestinian peace. It’s aim, they said, was to “send the message” to the respective political leaderships that peace was an urgent imperative.
The key Palestinian figure involved, Munib al-Masri, a billionaire member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, told The Times of Israel that he and other Palestinian leaders who have put their names to the initiative are taking a personal risk, given the animosity to Israel on the Palestinian street. “But I don’t care,” he said. “I have to speak my conscience.”
He said Israel had to stop the occupation and recognize Palestinian statehood, and the Palestinians have to show the Israelis that they recognize Israel.
The “Breaking the Impasse” initiative was launched by Israeli high-tech guru Yossi Vardi and al-Masri, at a press conference at the World Economic Forum here. Vardi told The Times of Israel after the conference that the idea had been “really positively welcomed” by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and “fit in well” with Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The initiative was advanced under the WEF aegis. At the WEF closing panel on Sunday evening, the hundreds of businesspeople who have put their names to the initiative were asked to stand and were warmly applauded. Before the packed plenum gathering, Vardi named several of the key Israeli and Palestinian leaders involved, and reserved special praise” for “the one and only Munib al-Masri.” Masri, he said, had told him “the whole thing” can be resolved in 15 minutes; only, said Vardi, “he didn’t tell me when to start counting.”
Masri, to much applause, urged Israel to “tear down this terrible wall” and end this conflict. He spoke of the “known” parameters of an accord, notably including Jerusalem as the capital of two states, and a “just” solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, and cited the Arab Peace Initiative as a potential platform for peace.
Masri said his own grandson Munib was injured by Israeli gunfire during a “peaceful demonstration” on the Lebanon border on Nakba day two years ago, and was now in a wheelchair, but was not full of hatred. “In the names of those who suffered, we urge the leaders in this room and those who are represented to end this conflict,” he said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the same plenury session that the initiative “gives me pleasure.” And Kerry thank the initiators for “stepping up.”
Vardi told the press conference earlier that the group’s Israeli leaders met for a “long and candid” conversation with Netanyahu last week.
“We saw 300 of the most influential people” in the Israeli and Palestinian economies gather to back the idea. They “stood tall, and said ‘enough is enough,’” Vardi said. “This alone sent a clear and distinct tone to the politicians, and I think they will take it into consideration.”
“Maybe we’ll fail… I don’t think that we will fail,” Vardi said, “but at least we will say that we tried as hard as we could.”
Palestinian businessman Samir Huleileh, CEO of Padico Holdings, said the initiative was being advanced “in full coordination” with the Palestinian leadership. It’s goal, he said, was “to end the conflict.” Still, the leaders announced no specific steps going forward. Also on the panel was Riad Kamal, an overseas Palestinian businessman who founded the Arabtec construction firm, and Yadin Kaufman, an Israeli partner in the Middle East Venture Fund.
The group’s press release spoke of nearly 200 business leaders involved, although at the press conference speakers cited a figure of 300.
The leaders said their group represents hundreds of top Israeli and Palestinian businessmen. Also reportedly involved are some business leaders from other Arab states including, for example, the head of the Hikma pharmaceutical firm in Jordan.
“Breaking the Impasse” wants to encourage and support political leaders to work for a two-state solution, Vardi told the press conference, sitting alongside al-Masri. Too often, he said, “we hear the voice of the extremists, but the majority is silent. And we believe that most of the people want to get an end to the conflict” and prepared to pay the price.
Vardi said 20 meetings had been held with “this fine gentleman” al-Masri in the past year, with the support of the WEF. The initiative was backed by “hundreds” of supporters — “the best and the brightest” business leaders — pushing for a two-state solution. Vardi said: “Too [many] tears were shed by mothers. There is almost no Israeli or Palestinian family that didn’t suffer. You may call us naive, you may ask what is new, you may have lost hope, but we are cursed to continue to pursue it.”
“It’s not for us to iron out the details,” Al-Masri said. “We are worried by the status quo. We want to change the status quo… Now the Israeli and Palestinian side [of the initiative] are very honest in their appeal: They want to break the impasse… They want the two sides to negotiate… to push all the parties to engage in real negotiations.”
Vardi said the group was not proposing specific solutions. It was up to political leaders “to make the painful compromises” necessary to bring peace, security and prosperity.
Significantly, a knowledgeable source told The Times of Israel here on Sunday, the group’s participants together represent companies that contribute no less than 30 percent of the GDP of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which they believe offers them unprecedented leverage in trying to chivy their respective political leaderships toward an agreement.
President Shimon Peres and Abbas were both fully familiar with the initiative and “essentially endorse it,” the source said.
Arriving at the conference on Sunday, indeed, Peres specifically highlighted the importance of economic cooperation. He said it was vital “not to waste time” and that he believed it was possible to “complete the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, based on two states for two peoples – an Israeli state and a Palestinian state living as good neighbors, and cooperating economically for the good of future generations.”
It is not clear, however, how the joint effort might be translated into meaningful political action. Kerry has spent recent weeks trying to woo Abbas and Netanyahu back to the negotiating table, thus far in vain.
The “Breaking the Impasse” leaders have been meeting in private for the past year, under the umbrella of the WEF. Vardi has been an enthusiastic participant at WEF events for many years. The source said the bigger breakthrough in the project was the public involvement of the Palestinian leaders — a brave step, he said, given the climate on the Palestinian street, which is far from warm to Israel.
The annual World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa, taking place this weekend in Jordan, is being held under the motto “Advancing Conditions for Growth and Resilience” and will focus on “shaping the region’s economic, social and governance systems of the future,” according to organizers.