Journalist Richard Behar thought he had discovered the real road map to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. In the August 12 cover story of Forbes magazine, Behar wrote about the way Israeli high-tech businesses were striving to work with Palestinian counterparts. The result of this cooperation was not only helping to create much-needed development in the West Bank. It was also creating a larger potential constituency for peace. The relationships as well as the business ties that this movement was driving could help transform Palestinian politics, moving it away from confrontation and violence and giving rise to a middle class with an interest in peace. In particular, the efforts of companies like CISCO to bridge the gap between the two peoples in pursuit of a common business goal seemed to be a model that could be expanded upon that gives genuine hope for an end to the conflict.
But in the aftermath of the publication of his article, Behar has learned an interesting lesson. As he writes in a follow-up article in Forbes, Palestinian businessmen named in the piece as working with Israelis were horrified about what he had written. They were happy about their businesses being highlighted in a prestigious business magazine, but any mention of working with Israel or, even worse, promoting peace, was regarded as treason to the Palestinian cause. They were soon demanding that the piece be retracted or taken down from the Forbes website. The very idea of “Peace Through Profits,” as the original Forbes headline read, exposed these businesspeople to being ostracized as “collaborators” or even exposing them to violence. Ironically, rather than discovering the path to peace, Behar has illustrated why the chances for an agreement to end the conflict are virtually nonexistent right now. So long as the culture of Palestinian politics is focused almost entirely on hostility and hatred toward Israel, neither top-down negotiations nor economic cooperation will make it possible for leaders or businessmen to do anything to move the region toward peace.
This is sobering stuff for those Americans and Israelis who have clung to the vision of a “New Middle East” that Shimon Peres first promulgated 20 years ago at the height of the post-Oslo euphoria. The notion that the region could be transformed into another version of the Benelux countries was also more of a flight of a fancy than a fact-based economic or political plan. The gap between Israel’s Start-Up Nation economy and that of its neighbors was always too great for such plans to be viewed as realistic. But the idea that Israeli expertise could be used to help Palestinians transform their society remains seductive. As Behar reported, there is a genuine desire on the part of many Palestinians for more economic development as well as for releasing their national life from the iron grip of Palestinian Authority corruption and mismanagement.
But the allergic reaction of the Palestinian businessmen he wrote about to the word “peace” tells us all we need to know about the inability of the PA to ever sign an accord that would end the conflict with Israel. As Behar notes in his follow-up, 34 years after Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel, Egyptian professionals and businesses still regard any dealings with Israelis as beyond the pale. That has made for an ice-cold peace between Israel and Egypt, but it is possible for the treaty to survive even in the absence of a breaking down of the wall of hatred toward Israel and Jews that exists in Egyptian society. But Egypt’s national identity exists outside of the context of anger against Israel’s existence. Not so for the Palestinians, whose national movement was born as a reaction to Zionism more than any other factor.
As Behar has learned, the debate among the Palestinians is not so much about peace as it is which tactics will be effective in pursuing their war against Israel. Those who say they reject violence are instead advocating for using economic boycotts and diplomatic isolation to bring Israel to its knees. In that context, cooperation with Israeli businesses undermines their cause even if it means helping to build a rational economy that would actually help ordinary Palestinians. Even those Palestinians who say they are willing to make a deal with Israel in order to force the Jewish state to give up land don’t want to give up their hate for it as part of the exchange.
Long before Peres dreamed of his new Benelux on the Med, Jews have dreamed about development being the path to peace. But today’s high-tech entrepreneurs aren’t being any more realistic than the Labor Zionist socialists who thought Palestinian workers and peasants would embrace peace once they realized the Jews wanted to build the country up for the benefit of all. Though even in his follow-up Behar still finds seeds of hope for cooperation, it must be understood that until a sea change occurs in Palestinian culture that turns away from hatred of Jews, this won’t lead anywhere.
Economics is important, but it doesn’t trump nationalism or religion. So long as Palestinians who work with Israeli businesses are branded as collaborators rather than innovators, peace negotiators are wasting their time and setting the region up for new disappointments and violence.