Hebron businessman with ties to settlers may be lone Palestinian at Bahrain meet

Ashraf Jabari, who hopes to attend economic peace summit in Bahrain which fellow tycoons have joined PA in boycotting, says two-state solution no longer the way forward

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Ashraf Jabari, left, attends a Jerusalem conference on Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank on February 12, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Ashraf Jabari, left, attends a Jerusalem conference on Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank on February 12, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The lone known Palestinian businessman to have said he may attend next month’s economic summit in Bahrain, as part of the Trump administration’s peace proposal, is a Hebron industrialist who has close ties to the Trump administration and Israeli settlers and is regarded by some as far outside the Palestinian mainstream.

Ashraf Jabari, 45, told The Times of Israel Tuesday that he does not think a two-state solution presents a viable endgame to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seemingly signaling support for the US-backed peace plan, which will reportedly not include a sovereign Palestinian state and which has been preemptively rejected by Ramallah.

Jabari was one of a handful of Palestinian businessmen to receive an invitation from the White House to a June 25-26 conference in Manama focusing on economic aspects of the long-delayed peace plan, with the declared aim of achieving Palestinian prosperity.

While other Palestinian business leaders have said they will not attend the conference and go against the Palestinian government’s rejection of the peace bid, Jabari has indicated he may participate.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (L) and Palestinian businessman Ashraf Jabari. (Courtesy)

“God willing, I will be able to make it,” he told The Times of Israel.

However, as co-chair of the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce — an NGO that promotes Israeli-Palestinian commercial partnerships beyond the Green Line — Jabari said he needed to discuss the matter with his colleagues before providing an official reply.

A former officer in the Palestinian Authority security forces who recently launched his own political party, Jabari is seen as close to the Trump administration and US envoy David Friedman. His ties to Israeli settlers — in 2017 he told a right-wing conference in Jerusalem that he backed Israeli annexation of the West Bank — have earned him the opprobrium of fellow Palestinians, some of whom dismiss him as a marginal figure.

The US has already indicated the peace plan will not necessarily endorse Palestinian statehood, making it a non-starter for Ramallah, and some have criticized the decision to put economic concerns before political aspirations as a bid to “buy off” Palestinians.

But Jabari said the two-state solution was no longer a viable endgame and praised the Trump administration for focusing on economics.

Though he had hoped the Oslo Accords, which began in 1993, would have successfully managed to create a sovereign Palestinian state, the direct negotiations they ushered failed to produce results, he said.

“Nobody in Israel is willing to sign off on a plan based on the 1967 borders. On the Palestinian side, there’s nobody willing to sign off on what the Israelis would be willing to offer. In the end, we are left with problems and violence. Therefore, I say that if we’ve waited for over 25 years [since Oslo] for a Palestinian state and we didn’t get — it’s very sad that it won’t happen, but let’s continue forward toward a one state [solution],” Jabari said.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks at an event organized by the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce in the northern West Bank city-settlement of Ariel on October 16, 2018. (Matty Stern/US Embassy)

Jabari largely refrained from criticizing those who chose not to heed the Trump invitation, instead asserting that Washington needed to find businessmen willing to act “heroically.”

Among those to reject the invitation to Manama was real estate developer Bashar Masri, who worked closely with previous US administrations to establish Rawabi, the West Bank’s first planned Palestinian city.

“We will not work with any event outside the Palestinian national consensus,” Masri wrote on Facebook. “The idea of economic peace is an old idea that is now suggested differently…. As our people previously rejected it, we are rejecting it now,” he said.

Palestinian entrepreneur Bashar Masri in front of his residential project of Rawabi, on February 23, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

The New York Times reported that Masri was joined by the owner of the Coca-Cola franchise in the Palestinian territories, Zahi Khouri, along with Ibrahim Barham, the CEO of one of the West Bank’s largest tech companies, Safad Engineering & Electronics, in rejecting the conference.

Palestinian officials were not invited to the conference and have criticized it harshly.

Jabari accused the PA of intimidating those who think differently than they do and of “playing politics” rather than making decisions that are in the best interest of the Palestinian people.

“If the PA were consistent, they would stop its participation in the Oslo Accords and its security coordination with Israel,” he said, charging Ramallah of hypocrisy for agreeing to money in certain circumstances, while now rejecting the Trump initiative that is expected to offer tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment.

Members of the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce pose for a photo with US Ambassador David Friedman (seated 3rd from R) at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on May 4, 2018. (Facebook)

Pressed as to whether he viewed the Trump administration as an honest broker after it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there, closed the PA’s consulate in Washington and cut millions of dollars in aid to both the PA as well as causes directed at Palestinians, Jabari said he appreciated the US emphasis on economic solutions to the conflict.

“We must work to strengthen the Palestinian economy which was decimated following the violence of the [Second] Intifada,” Jabari insisted. “If we continue on this path toward peace, there won’t be anymore occupation.”

The businessman clarified that the one-state solution he envisioned saw West Bank Palestinians receiving full rights. Jabari said it would be reasonable to initially only receive permanent residency status like most Palestinians in East Jerusalem. However, at a later stage, he said Palestinians in the West Bank would deserve citizenship, whether or not that would mean Israel losing its Jewish majority.

In addition to his business ventures in the food, automobile and construction industries, Jabari also co-founded the Reform and Development Party earlier this month, which quickly raised the ire of the PA by purporting to represent the “silent majority” of Palestinians.

The Reform and Development Party has said it wants to revive the Palestinian economy, end corruption and even work with Israeli NGOs.

While no elections are expected any time soon in the West Bank, Jabari said the party already enjoys the support of nearly 5,000 Palestinians.

But many say that Jabari is a marginal figure whose views enjoy little to no reception.

Branding the businessman as “isolated,” Hebron University political science professor Belal Shobaki told Al-Monitor that Palestinians “only hear about him in the Israeli media.”

Palestinian activist Issa Amro wrote in The Forward that Jabari “is one of the least respected Palestinians in the Hebron community,” adding that the entrepreneur has been accused of stealing money from neighbors — charges Jabari denies.

His relations with prominent settler leaders in Hebron and throughout the West Bank have peaked in recent years and earlier this month he hosted a Ramadan breakfast meal, which the Israeli invitees proudly cited as a sign of interfaith cooperation.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (L) and Palestinian businessman Ashraf Jabari. (Courtesy)

The Hebron businessman’s willingness to work with Israeli ventures, particularly those located in the West Bank, has sparked the interest of Trump officials, notably US Ambassador Friedman, who has extensive ties to the settlement movement.

Jabari said he met privately with Friedman on the sidelines of the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce conference, where the two discussed the possibility of opening a joint Israeli-Palestinian commercial center in Hebron along with Israeli supermarket mogul Rami Levy.

He added that there are roughly 150 other like-minded Palestinian businessmen who are interested in economic cooperation with Israel. However, Jabari said that he could not reveal their identities as they live in PA-administered Area A of the West Bank and would be putting their lives at risk.

As a result, the number of Palestinian executives interested in joining him in Bahrain remains at zero.

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