Squabbling among ‘businessmen’ threatens US effort to engage Palestinians

Delegates ‘remove’ head of Palestinian delegation to Bahrain economic workshop

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman shakes hands with Jerusalem-based activist Ibrahim Abu El Hawa at the Israeli-Palestinian International Economic Forum in Jerusalem, February 21, 2019 (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman shakes hands with Jerusalem-based activist Ibrahim Abu El Hawa at the Israeli-Palestinian International Economic Forum in Jerusalem, February 21, 2019
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
US administration efforts to engage with Palestinians could be facing a setback in wake of a sharp dispute that has erupted among Palestinian figures who have agreed to work with President Donald Trump’s administration.
At the center of the row is a “revolt” by a number of Palestinian businessmen against Ashraf Jabari, the Hebron business leader who headed a Palestinian delegation to last July’s Bahrain economic workshop, sponsored by the Trump administration.
At the workshop, which was boycotted by the Palestinian Authority and most Arab countries, the Trump administration unveiled the economic portion of its long-awaited plan for peace in the Middle East, also known as the “Deal of the Century.”
Jabari, who is closely associated with some Trump administration officials and settler leaders, defied the PA boycott by traveling to Manama at the head of a seven-man delegation of businessmen from the West Bank belonging to a hitherto unknown group called Palestinian Business Network (PBN).
It remains unclear what he and his associates have accomplished by participating in the Bahrain conference. One thing is certain, however: Jabari has managed to alienate some of his colleagues, who are now seeking to distance themselves from the man and are waging a smear campaign against him.
Palestinian businessmen who were part of the Jabari-led delegation that attended the Bahrain workshop told The Jerusalem Post that they received promises from various parties to involve them in various economic projects, particularly in the West Bank. Jabari, they claimed, was keeping them in the dark regarding the promised funds and projects.
Shortly after the return of the Palestinian delegation from Bahrain, two of the participants began attacking Jabari, accusing him of misleading and deceiving them.
The controversy reached its peak on November 11, when the PBN issued a statement announcing the removal of Jabari from the group, which claims to represent 100 Palestinian businessmen.
The disgruntled businessmen have also written to senior US administration officials, senators and Congresspeople notifying them of their decision to severe ties with Jabari.
In the statement, the businessmen claimed that Jabari was removed from his post “due to a number of acts of fraud,” but did not elaborate.
“The council has voted that Mr. Safwan Zughayyer will stand as chairman of the PBN, and that Mr. Khaldon Al-Hussaini will be in charge of all international connections,” the statement said. “All six businessmen who flew with Mr. Jabari have voted for this decision. We hereby declare that Mr. Jabari does not represent us, the businessmen who participated in the workshop in Bahrain, and does not represent the PBN by any means or way.”
The mutiny in the PBN coincided with Jabari’s visit to Washington as part of a tour organized by the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce.
Jabari and Avi Zimmerman, founder and president of the chamber, held a series of meetings with US senators and Congresspeople “to articulate a simple message: regional business development is Win-Win for Palestinians and Israelis alike,” according to a tweet posted by the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce on November 19.
The Palestinian businessmen who came out against Jabari told the Post that he’s unworthy of representing them at any international forum.
According to Hussaini and Zughayyar, one of the reasons why they came out against Jabari is because of his affiliation with the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce.
“This chamber does not represent Palestinians,” they told the Post. “Although it has two Palestinian members only – Jabari and Wissam Sider – this chamber consists mostly of settlers.”
They further complained that Jabari was refusing to consult with other members of the PBN and was making decisions on his own.
“There’s no transparency, and we don’t know where the money we were supposed to receive went,” Zughayyar said. “We never knew where the money was coming from anyway.”
Hussaini and Zughayyar claimed that they were unaware of Jabari’s “problematic past” when they agreed to travel with him to Bahrain. “We don’t trust this man, and we don’t want to work with him anymore,” they said.
Jabari, for his part, on Thursday dismissed the charges and accused Hussaini and Zughayyar of lying. He also accused the two of being part of a Palestinian Authority campaign to slander him.
“These games are organized and directed by the Palestinian Authority security forces in order to undermine coexistence and joint work between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said. “Those involved in the defamation campaign will be held to account.”
Jabari also denied that he or any of the members of the delegation had received funding from any party after their participation in the Bahrain workshop. “We haven’t received $1 from anyone,” he added. “I’m responsible for every word I say. I believe they are upset because we didn’t take them with us to the US.”
According to Jabari, Hussaini and Zughayyar are not real businessmen. “One of them served as a driver, while the other came as a companion,” Jabari said. “Because of their narrow-mindedness, they thought they were members of the businessmen delegation. I also have proof that they were involved in acts of fraud.”
Commenting on the turmoil among the US-backed Palestinian businessmen, a PA official in Ramallah told the Post that he was not surprised by the infighting.
“We said from day one that these figures are completely unreliable and don’t represent anyone,” the official said. “Now we see that they are accusing each other of being fraudsters and corrupt. The dispute among the so-called businessmen is a severe blow to the Trump administration’s continued attempt to bypass the legitimate leadership of the Palestinians.”