A Palestinian employee works at the SodaStream factory [File].
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prospects for reaching a negotiated peace agreement with the Palestinians are next to nonexistent right now. This diagnosis is shared by a broad consensus spanning the political spectrum from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the Right to opposition leader Isaac Herzog on the Left.
There is, however, also a broad consensus supporting cooperation with Palestinians in the fields of business, environmental issues and technology.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has taken a number of steps to foster cooperation, apparently with the endorsement of the prime minister. Initiatives include inviting Palestinian doctors to train in Israeli hospitals; study and internship opportunities for Palestinian entrepreneurs and engineers in Israel’s world-leading hi-tech industry; allowing Palestinian construction companies and contractors to operate inside the Green Line, expanding access to the Israeli market from the current situation in which only Palestinian day laborers are allowed into Israel to work.
Such initiatives could foster stronger ties between Israelis and Palestinians and help break down barriers.
But if economic cooperation is supported by the present government – even by ministers opposed to a two-state solution – how are we to explain the government’s decision this week regarding SodaStream? The government refused to renew work permits for 74 Palestinians employed by the Israeli carbonated beverages company. SodaStream’s CEO Daniel Birnbaum told The Jerusalem Post’s Economics Correspondent Niv Elis that he had approached the Prime Minister’s Office and the Economy, Finance, Public Security, Interior and Foreign ministries, as well as the police – to no avail.
“I had dozens of discussions with nearly every ministry and minister and clerk that could possibly have a part in this saga,” Birnbaum said.
“I cannot believe that a Jewish administration would ask me to send children to their hunger,” he continued. “This has been the most difficult and sad day of my life. I’m the son of a Holocaust survivor. I cannot watch this disregard for human dignity.”
SodaStream built its Lehavim plant, which employs around 1,200 workers – including hundreds of Beduin – to replace its plant in the West Bank industrial zone of Mishor Adumim near Ma’aleh Adumim, which closed last autumn amid pressure from BDS activists. Some 500 Palestinians lost their jobs in that closure, but 74 experienced workers who had families were given permits to commute to the Lehavim plant near Beersheba.
Of course, preventing Palestinians from entering Israel due to security concerns is perfectly legitimate.
Still, we must ask ourselves whether it is realistic to stop all employment of Palestinians. About 58,000 Palestinians hold permits to work in Israel, according to the coordinator of government activities in the territories (CO GAT ). Ending their employment in Israel would likely lead to an economic calamity for the Palestinian Authority. Relations between Israel and the Palestinians would deteriorate. Israel would be forced to import tens of thousands more foreign workers, as it did during the second intifada.
The SodaStream model of providing equal, excellent working conditions to all of its employees – Jew, Arab, Palestinian, Beduin – has worked incredibly well and is a shining example of the word “coexistence” that is bandied about all too handily but not seen in action as frequently.
An official in the Prime Minister’s Office was unable to recognize the importance of renewing the work permits.
“Our policy is to give priority to Israeli workers,” the official told the Post’s Herb Keinon. “What SodaStream is doing is talking about the coexistence they want. They had wonderful coexistence in Mishor Adumim. The reason it was destroyed is because of BDS. Why is he [Birnbaum] so passionate about letting BDS off the hook?” So, rather than seeing the benefit in both goodwill and hasbara (public diplomacy) in letting 74 hardworking, longtime Palestinian employees keep their jobs at SodaStream, the government prefers to look the other way and solely blame BDS for their plight.
SodaStream symbolized the cooperation that can be forged between Israelis and Palestinians. The government’s failure to allow that cooperation to continue seems to be vindictive, mean-spirited and shortsighted.