US envoy looks to boost Israel-Palestinian business cooperation in West Bank
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'People want peace and we are ready to help'

US envoy looks to boost Israel-Palestinian business cooperation in West Bank

David Friedman stands by US decision to cut funding to West Bank coexistence programs; J Street slams his support for settlements

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

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)
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)

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman met on Tuesday with a group of Israeli and Palestinian business leaders to discuss the joint economic ventures they are working to launch in the West Bank, saying people on the ground are ready to cooperate despite the differences between political leaders.

The closed-door meeting took place in the city-settlement of Ariel and was organized by the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry, an NGO that promotes Israeli-Palestinian commercial partnerships beyond the Green Line.

Critics said this was another instance of Friedman breaking with US policy and supporting Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Friedman used the sit-down to take a shot at the Palestinian Authority, tweeting afterward that the businessmen he met with are “ready, willing and able to advance joint opportunity & peaceful coexistence. People want peace and we are ready to help! Is the Palestinian leadership listening?”

The PA has been boycotting the White House since it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December. Ramallah has argued that the decision, along with subsequent punitive measures taken by the Trump administration, has led to the loss of any US legitimacy as an unbiased mediator between Israelis and Palestinians.

שגריר ארה"ב, מר דיוויד פרידמן ערך היום ביקור רשמי בעיר אריאל. זוהי אבן דרך מבורכת שמהווה המשך ישיר להעברה ההיסטורית של…

Posted by ‎אליהו שבירו ראש העיר אריאל – Eliyau Shaviro Mayor of Ariel‎ on Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Avi Zimmerman, one of the founders of the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce, said that Friedman was keen on “encouraging Palestinian business leaders, in particular,” to join in on such business ventures.

Another founding member of the NGO, Ashraf Jabari told The Times of Israel that the US envoy “promised to speak to Israeli officials if we face any obstacles in carrying out our projects.”

But while he encouraged their work, Friedman stood by his administration’s decision to cut funding to all aid programs that bring together Palestinians and Israelis. The Chamber had applied to receive a $200,000 grant from USAID that it will no longer be able to receive, as their efforts constitute West Bank coexistence work that Washington no longer bankrolls.

Zimmerman said that members of The Chamber have raised their objections regarding the move but that Friedman and the Trump administration “see things differently” and believe the aid cut will be part of the “greater good.”

Strategic planning in advance of Israeli-Palestinian Economic Summit:The Judea Samaria Chamber of Commerce and…

Posted by Judea Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry on Friday, 4 May 2018

Tuesday’s meeting had been scheduled to take place in Hebron, where most of the ten Palestinian business leaders Friedman met with are from. Zimmerman said the US envoy was forced to pull out from speaking in the flashpoint West Bank city due to “security reasons,” upon which his group decided to move the event to Ariel.

His participation drew criticism from the Liberal Israel advocacy group J Street.

“By making an official public appearance at an event in an Israeli West Bank settlement, Ambassador Friedman once again crossed a major, longstanding red line of bipartisan US policy,” said  Street Vice President of Government Affairs Dylan Williams in a statement.

“The Trump administration continues to send a clear message of support for the settlement movement and the agenda of the Israeli right,” he said.

The ambassador also spoke with a visiting delegation of investors to The Chamber from the US-Israel Education Association, a pro-settlement Christian NGO that opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state.

While the ambassador declined to comment further on the event, a US Embassy official said that “the Ambassador was encouraged by the enthusiasm and commitment of Israeli and Palestinian business leaders to work together to create more economic opportunity and peaceful coexistence within the region.”

“He strongly believes that people-to-people connections are the foundation of any future peace deal and that open dialogue is the only way to promote greater understanding,” the US official added.

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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