Failure to reach a peace agreement will have “catastrophic” results for both Israel and the Palestinians, the head of an Israeli business cooperation NGO said Monday, adding that improving the Palestinian economy — a so-called “economic peace” — was no alternative to a diplomatically-negotiated peace deal.
David Simha, head of the Israeli-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce (IPCC), told journalists hosted by The Israel Project in Jerusalem that Israeli leaders now realize they “cannot afford the risk of not reaching an understanding [with the Palestinians].”
“I want to make it very clear: in our Chamber we do not believe in ‘economic peace.’ We believe that economic relations should go parallel to the continuation of diplomatic efforts towards a solution of two states for two peoples,” Simha said.
Founded in 2009, IPCC is one of 52 bi-national chambers of commerce active in Israel. Representing Israeli businessmen and industrialists interested in doing business with the Palestinian Authority, IPCC’s mission statement also includes “creating mutual trust between the two peoples.”
Over the past year, Simha said, his organization held five business conferences in Tel Aviv in the fields of food, textile, furniture, medication and high tech; bringing together Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs.
Simha’s foreboding tone starkly contradicted the sentiment expressed by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett during a meeting with Times of Israel editorial staff on Monday.
Bennett asserted that there was no correlation between the state of Israel’s economy and progress on the peace track.
“If anything, I feel there’s an opposite effect,” Bennett said. “What we need in Israel is quiet and security. You can see that in years that there was security on the ground, the economy thrived even if there was no full peace settlement.”
But Simha said there was a huge untapped market for Israeli products in the Arab Gulf just waiting for a peace deal to be signed. He himself met Gulf businessmen at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos and heard them express great interest in opening their markets to Israeli imports.
“There is no reason why we can do business with the rest of the world and not with this huge market,” he said. “Just as we would like to do business with them, we feel they would like to do business with us, but they just need the green light for that. The green light is this [peace] agreement.”
Referring to the looming threat of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israeli products and businesses, Simha said that his organization has noticed “no effect at all.” The Chamber of Commerce has decided not to take a position on the question of Israeli companies beyond the Green Line, despite — or perhaps due to — the great sensitivity of the issue.
Some 500 Israeli factories operate in the West Bank, Simha said, employing 30-40,000 Palestinians. The average salary of Palestinian employees in Israeli factories — whether in Israel or the West Bank — is double that which they receive in their hometowns, he added.
Speaking to his Palestinian counterparts, a mixed picture emerges regarding employment in the settlements, Simha said. Some believe it is essential for the Palestinian economy, while others favor Palestinian national pride over immediate economic expediency.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, for the second year in a row, 50-60 leading Israeli businessmen met with 60-70 of their Palestinian counterparts to discuss cooperation the day after a peace treaty is signed. “We didn’t talk much about what happens if one isn’t,” he said.
“We’re not patronizing the Palestinians, we want them as partners, as equals … they need us and we need them,” Simha said, adding that in his own opinion the BDS movement does nothing to advance the cause of peace.
But that sentiment is greatly challenged by the other side. Many of Simha’s joint ventures are forced to remain under the radar due to anti-normalization pressure exerted on the Palestinian businessmen.
“It’s frustrating for us that we can’t write about our activities in the paper the next morning. I wish I could publish a huge article after each meeting, announcing that 50 Palestinians came to Tel Aviv. We don’t do that because we know that maybe next time they won’t come. Simple as that.”