Business Magazine

Private Sector Peace

Posted on the 13 November 2013 by Center For International Private Enterprise @CIPEglobal


At the beginning of the film Under the Same Sun, Nizar, a Palestinian businessman, looks at the smashed windshield on his car and reads a note that says, “We hope this makes things clear for you.” A newspaper has just exposed his business relations with an Israeli, and he faces public outrage over his perceived betrayal of the boycott of Israeli goods.

His brother tells him that you cannot trust Israelis—after all, his other brother was shot by an Israeli soldier during the first Intifada. His landlord cannot let him continue to lease office space for fear of vandalism. The news also causes familial rifts for Shaul, the Israeli businessman—his sister and brother-in-law who live in a West Bank settlement refuse to speak to him. His Israeli business partner will not work with Palestinians; he didn’t trust them even before “the incident” that killed his son.

The story is fictional. Search for Common Ground brought together Israeli and Palestinian directors, producers, and actors to create a mockumentary about an Israeli and a Palestinian who start a joint venture company to bring solar energy to Palestinian villages in the West Bank. Shaul is motivated by profit and sees Palestine as a viable market to enter. Nizar wants to help his community achieve energy independence, so it will no longer have to rely on purchasing Israeli generators.

The men face tremendous obstacles. Logistically, meeting in person proves to be a struggle. Denied a permit to work in Israel, Nizar cannot get past a checkpoint. Shaul grows increasingly concerned as his car nears the Palestinian Territories, passing a sign that reminds him Israelis are not allowed. However, against fierce opposition from their respective families and societies, the men’s project grows much larger. Using Facebook, they start a movement to empower the moderate majority that want to cooperate and live in peace, which has been overshadowed by louder extremist voices on both sides. The movement puts pressure on the leaders of both sides and eventually leads to a negotiated solution and the creation of two independent, democratic states.

Given the decades of failed negotiations, the skepticism surrounding current peace talks, and the high levels of mistrust prevalent on both sides, the movie may seem like nothing more than a pipe dream—a fairy tale for peace activists.

However, the economic cooperation on which the plot is premised exists outside of fiction. Against the backdrop of the official peace talks arranged by Secretary of State John Kerry, the private sector acts as the driving force in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. A recent Forbes article reports that dozens of (often secret) dialogues are taking place between Israeli high-tech experts and Palestinian entrepreneurs to find ways of collaborating in the economic development of the West Bank.

The cooperation goes beyond mere trade to include hundreds of actual Israeli-Palestinian business partnerships. Forbes estimates that with the assistance of training, investment, or partnership from Israelis or Israeli subsidiaries of American companies, more than 300 Palestinian technology firms now employ 4,500 people. Big tech companies have proved eager to participate: for instance, Cisco has invested more than $15 million in Israeli-Palestinian ventures, and Intel’s Tech Forum brought 60 Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs together. Ben Gurion University found its own way to contribute, by hosting a “Business for Peace Competition.” The winning project proposes to create a website connecting Palestinian software engineers in the Territories, who lack sufficient work, with employers in Israel’s high-tech industry, who struggle to find qualified employees.

Rather than relying on foreign aid, which has often been misused, private sector partnerships allow Palestinians to actively participate in the long-term development of their country. Beyond profits, Israelis stand to gain greater acceptance within the international business community. These private sector initiatives give actors on both sides an economic incentive to favor peace. Regardless of the outcome of the current negotiations, conflict resolution through economic cooperation may not end up being a pipe dream.

Peako Jenkins is a Public Service Initiative Fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at CIPE.

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