Israeli-Palestinian business coalition urges peace

Even when they disagree among themselves, business leaders on both sides of the conflict see advantages to deal

Rami Levy (standing, left) at a cellphone sales center in one of the supermarkets bearing his name. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Rami Levy (standing, left) at a cellphone sales center in one of the supermarkets bearing his name. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Two years ago, Israeli supermarket mogul Rami Levy invited Palestinian gas and oil magnate Munib al-Masri to one of his grocery stores.

A working-class boy who had become the West Bank’s wealthiest man, al-Masri already had turned his attention to a new challenge: encouraging a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the partnership was not to be.

Levy, the owner of the supermarket chain Rami Levy Hashikma Marketing, has three stores in Israeli West Bank settlements, and al-Masri decided he could not work with him in good faith. In Levy’s eyes, the West Bank franchises advance peace by employing Palestinians and fostering coexistence. Al-Masri, however, saw them as an impediment to the partnership.

Now the pair find themselves together anyway as part of a larger initiative of 300 Israeli and Palestinian businesspeople hoping to nudge their respective leaderships toward a peace agreement. Levy and al-Masri say they can coexist within the larger group, known as Breaking the Impasse, or BTI, despite the significant ideological gaps between them.

“The big picture is me convincing them that they shouldn’t be there,” al-Masri told JTA, referring to Israel’s presence in the settlements. “I will always talk to them because if they agree with me, we’ll work together. This is a win-win.”

BTI was founded at the World Economic Forum in 2012, but launched its public campaign only recently. So far, BTI has engaged in a mix of public advocacy and quiet diplomacy, holding off-the-record meetings with Israeli and Palestinian ministers and placing large billboards in Israeli population centers touting the benefits of a peace deal.

Palestinian billionaire Munib Masri (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/The Times of Israel)
Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/The Times of Israel)

Participants say their interest in the initiative isn’t strictly economic, though a peace agreement surely would bring substantial benefits to the business community. In particular, they say a deal would be key to curbing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS, that seeks to punish Israel economically for its treatment of the Palestinians.

“A lot of companies and states and academics want to invest, buy products and do joint academic research” with Israel, said Moshe Lichtman, former president of Microsoft Israel’s research and development center. “If we have an opportunity [for peace] and we miss it, it will have economic and business implications.”

In February, BTI ran a series of billboards featuring a large picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and slogans such as “Only with an agreement can we secure a Jewish and democratic state,” or “Without a peace agreement we won’t be able to lower the cost of living.” Each statement concluded with a message to Netanyahu: “Bibi, only you can do it!”

A parallel effort is underway to exert pressure on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but the Israeli and Palestinian members of BTI are operating independently in their respective spheres and the Netanyahu billboards were arranged solely by the Israeli side.

BTI members say that while they support a peace agreement that leads to two states, they won’t delve into the thorny details of major issues such as Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem or final borders. Such questions, they say, should be left to the negotiators.

Sticking to broad slogans allows BTI to paper over substantial differences among its participants, but it also could present obstacles for the group should the particulars of an agreement come to light. US Secretary of State John Kerry is slated to propose a framework for an agreement in the coming weeks.

“We know there are disagreements left and right,” said Michal Stopper-Vax, BTI’s CEO. “But if the prime minister signs an agreement, the majority of the group will be behind it.”

The differences between Levy and al-Masri point to the gaps even between Israelis and Palestinians who agree on the need for a two-state solution. Al-Masri talks about a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, while Levy wants to keep all of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. Al-Masri wants to offer each Palestinian refugee Israeli citizenship, a non-starter for most Israelis. And while Levy believes Palestinians aren’t fully prepared for a final deal, al-Masri believes Israel is “morally responsible” for the conflict.

Both men say that if their respective leaders sign an agreement, and both Israelis and Palestinians approve it in referenda, they won’t object. But the differences between them may make for a tenuous alliance. In February, some BTI members took out a full-page ad in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot touting the group’s message, but Levy chose not to sign on because it didn’t sufficiently address Israeli security concerns.

“We are not politicians,” Levy told JTA, echoing several other BTI members. “We don’t make the decisions. In a democratic state, the majority decides. No one can come and dictate if the majority says something else.”

Even before the latest round of negotiations began last July, skepticism abounded among both Israelis and Palestinians about the chances for a peace agreement. The American negotiating team appears to be struggling to bridge gaps between the sides on several major issues, but BTI participants say the talks may be Israel’s last good opportunity to end the conflict.

“Netanyahu has had a certain change of thought, that this is a historic decision,” said Lichtman, the former Microsoft executive. “He needs to feel that he has broad support. I think he’s skeptical. There’s a lot of justification to be skeptical, but I think he’s ripe to make these decisions.”

Promoting Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation has long been seen in some quarters as essential to buttressing a peace deal. But Bar-Ilan University political studies professor Shmuel Sandler says that if Netanyahu does push through to an agreement, it won’t be because of business interests.

A former finance minister, Netanyahu is aware of the potential economic benefits of peace, Sandler says, but security concerns remain his top priority.

“Up until now, businessmen haven’t had influence,” Sandler said. “Security officials are more influential. For Bibi, the economy is important, but on balance security is more important.”

Levy thinks Netanyahu will rise to the occasion. But if he doesn’t, Levy says BTI should keep advancing the same message.

“When we talk about negotiations, I’m always optimistic,” he said. “Sometimes I hear people say this is the last chance for peace. You can never say this is the last chance for peace. You need to try your whole life.”

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