(February 28, 2019 / JNS) With so many new businesses sprouting up in Israeli and Palestinian communities in Judea and Samaria, isn’t it possible to create some form of collaboration between them to share resources and take advantage of shared opportunities? That’s what many people hope to achieve.
Last week, the Judea Samaria Chamber of Commerce (JSC) and the U.S. Israel Education Association (USIEA) came together at Jerusalem’s David Citadel hotel to launch the Regional Development Financial Initiative (RDFI) as part of the Israeli-Palestinian International Economic Forum. It would see Israeli and Palestinian business leaders in Judea and Samaria partner together to advance regional economic opportunities.
Avi Zimmerman, co-founder of the JSC, told JNS that “the objective is economic development for the region of Judea and Samaria. As we see it, from a capitalist perspective, economic development is for all parties—all populations living in the area—and through all parties. We need to engage the business community, which needs to become a leader. It’s an area that lives with a great deal of uncertainty. We need to create circumstances that are more conducive to stability and sustainability.”
Zimmerman highlighted the possibilities of collaboration, which include the tech industry, tourism, rehabilitation projects, transportation, regional development and plenty of other areas. He addressed the elephant in the room, of course, which is the political aspect of Israeli-Palestinian relations, but said that the emphasis is on business alone, with the intention of staying away from politics.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman seemed to support this when he addressed the forum. “The political process will continue,” he said. “We’re hopeful we will make real progress on that in the near future, but it is never a substitute or a means to delay the opportunity to provide a better future for the Jews and the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, who are entitled to the very same things that we all want for our families.”
Eli Cohen, Israel’s Minister of Economy and Industry, spoke about the government’s commitment to the economic development of Judea and Samaria. “The State of Israel is a country of innovation and technology,” said Cohen during his address at the forum. “There is a term we use called tikkun olam, which means ‘repairing the world.’ We are trying to make the world a better place, and we use technology to make Israel a better place. I congratulate all those who took part in organizing this important meeting here. Its fruits will be reaped in the economy through joint action.”
Zimmerman, however, emphasized that he wants to move away from the model of government handouts. “We need to engage the business community. Yes, we need to have further development, but we have to do it because we are strong,” he said. “We have the ability and prerogative to do this ourselves.”
Ashraf Jabari, a Palestinian business and community leader from Hebron, who together with Zimmerman is also co-founder of the JSC, told JNS, “We know how to work with our Israeli neighbors. We have a strong base of support in Hebron. The street is with us. There are many businessmen who are ready to work with Israelis.”
Jabari said such dialogue and communication was the only way forward for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. “We need to break the fence between Israelis and Palestinians, and to know that there’s no other way but to work together,” he said. “We can’t keep going like we have over 25 years and waiting for a political settlement. We don’t have time to wait for politicians.”
The organizers believe that the region is “poised to emerge as Israel’s most innovative economy,” and are enthusiastic and hopeful about playing their part in this process.
‘The way of the future’
Heather Johnston, founder and executive director of USIEA, told JNS, “The whole idea of this economic forum is to take what they have done so far in the way of the success with the businesses and showcase that, as well as show the economic outlook of where the future is going.”
She noted that since its founding, the economic forum has had the experts involved, all of whom have “played a part in mapping the economic future for Judea and Samaria.” She was referring to the Milken Innovation Center–Jerusalem Institute, in addition to the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research.
“USIEA has taken the path of being able to highlight this for the U.S. Congress and the U.S. administration to help them understand what is happening inside this grassroots movement,” she said about her particular role.
Johnston pointed to the Palestinian Partnership Fund Act of 2018 as an example of bipartisan support in both the U.S. House and Senate that supports Jews and Palestinian doing joint business together. The legislation has now been referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.
“That seems to be the way of the future,” she said. “Whereas the focus has been focused on the Palestinian economy, now we have a new road of how do we create real peace and prosperity together?”