Few people know that Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank are working toward developing a paradigmatic economic development model of shared prosperity. All too often, the West Bank has been depicted as a region rife with conflict and war. For too long we’ve been told that Israelis and Palestinians can only operate with each other in a classic zero-sum game; that “the conflict” defines life in the West Bank and that top-down diplomacy is the only path toward making the region a better place for Israelis and Palestinians.
With all due respect to conventional wisdom, our experience as residents and businesspeople of this region has been quite the opposite. We see Israelis and Palestinians not as enemies but as neighbors; our prosperity and dignity as being the desired rhythm for everyday life; and the last quarter of a century of top-down diplomacy as an utter failure.
Ever since the Oslo Accords of 1993, various attempts at segregating our populations have resulted in limited markets and heavily regulated trade. These limitations have accumulated over time as a result of both Israel’s security concerns limiting accessibility between both populations, and the Palestinian Authority’s anti-normalization policies with Israel hampering the success and expansion of inter-population integrated business initiatives. Following the failures of diplomacy and the disappointment of unmet expectations, a groundswell of bottom-up progress is now the primary viable path forward.
The silent majorities among both populations do not value conflict. Unfortunately, our voices are rarely heard. Our innovators and entrepreneurs share an inspirational sparkle, a driving sense of purpose that conveys a readiness to overcome obstacles and take on the world. But there are circumstances when the obstacles are pervasive, when our innovators hit the same market-failure walls and the establishment systematically pushes back in what seems like an attempt to hinder opportunities for mutual growth. All things considered, despite the obstacles, market forces are pushing for a better tomorrow, and our newly coordinated efforts are poised to bear fruit.
Every day, 120,000 Palestinians work in internationally recognized Israel and another 45,000 work in Israeli-owned businesses in the West Bank. Additionally, there are 15,000 Palestinian businesspeople whose partnerships with their Israeli counterparts are central to their business models. Recognizing this current success and the latent potential for growth, we decided to develop a new framework for measurable productivity.
IN THE last quarter of 2017, we co-established the Judea and Samaria (JS) Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a nonprofit organization dedicated solely to regional economic development. The first 12 months were focused on mapping out market failures and untapped opportunities. The following 12 months were concentrated on enlisting an initial group of 250 Palestinian businesses and 250 Israeli businesses in our shared process of economic growth. We are currently entering the third year, focused on the opening stages of implementation.
This past February, we hosted the first Israeli-Palestinian International Economic Forum in Jerusalem, where we addressed the pillar industries in the West Bank with the greatest impact potential. We also presented our Regional Development Financing Initiative, which is designed to cultivate investments in the fields of manufacturing and technology, commerce and trade, tourism, infrastructure and environmental renewal. The more we develop an integrated business ecosystem, the more predisposed our region and populations will be to succeed in each of these fields.
To be sure, domestic political obstacles continue to dominate the foreground, and businesses are held at bay. Ever since we established the JS Chamber we have been met with opposition by those who attempt to sabotage mutually productive partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians, and with threats and corruption by those who are envious of our progress. Whereas we resort to legal action against slander as necessary, we prefer to focus our efforts on developing a healthier tomorrow.
Indeed, we anticipate measurable growth in the foreseeable future. We were well received by both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill last month where we briefed senators and members of Congress concerning our efforts. International business delegations are scheduled to visit the region on a monthly basis through the first half of 2020. A group of global businesspeople has partnered with us to incentivize our entrepreneurial ecosystem by cultivating investments for leading innovators that will be awarded at our second economic forum. And regional businesses and entrepreneurs are doubling down to turn these opportunities into measurable outcomes.
Market forces will inevitably outpace the stumbling blocks along the way. Misconceptions concerning the region will, ultimately, be set straight. And the global business community will continue to discover that Israelis and Palestinians are investing in a more productive future, side by side, day by day, to the benefit of generations to come.
Avi Zimmerman is an Israeli businessman from Ariel. Ashraf Jabari is a Palestinian businessman from Hebron who co-founded the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry.