Time for a Brand New Site for Israel-Palestine Peace Talks
HUFFPOST - Bhaskar Chakravorti - Rockets fired. Retaliation ensues. A shaky peace follows and we are back at another round of negotiations in the stop-and-start cycle of ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza confrontation. As talk turns back to how to re-start the broken peace process, even as Israel claims fresh territory in the West Bank, let us consider something radically different.
Political and military solutions have failed. Given the distance in objectives and motivations on both sides, even in a region with a reputation for miracles, there is unlikely to be a real solution brought about by political or military forces. At best they broker a temporary hiatus before the next crisis begins. My proposal: hold the peace talks in a different location, and this time with some new actors, entrepreneurs, builders and job creators at the table. Let’s move the talks not to Cairo or Oslo or Camp David, but to right where a “shot at peace” — to borrow a term from the CEO of Cisco, John Chambers, a proponent of economic security as a pathway to real security in the region — could actually be fired. Let us move to a site such as Rawabi City.
I was in Rawabi City with a group of Boston area academics and innovation experts when the latest crisis began. Three of my students from The Fletcher School at Tufts were already onsite spending the summer working there. After several days of travel in the region meeting with entrepreneurs, technologists and venture capitalists across Israel and now in the West Bank, we met Bashar Masri, an audacious entrepreneur with a quixotic mission: to build a planned city from scratch on a barren hill only 5 miles from Ramallah and 12 miles from Jerusalem. Challenged to get essential supplies through Israeli controlled territory, Masri was in the process of negotiating access to water from Israeli authorities.
Navigating this political puzzle in the region, Masri had bypassed the historians, the generals and the politicians: He was building the exoskeleton of normalcy — shopping malls, apartments, office suites, Main Street. He seemed no different from his Israeli counterparts. This seemed like a shot at peace.
The role of entrepreneurs like Masri in bringing peace has been ignored, because in response to such deep rooted crises such as those in the Middle East, we have always turned to the usual suspects and usual failed political, diplomatic and military solutions. This may come as a surprise to many readers: more than rockets and tunnels have been crossing these contested borders; real money has made its way past the checkpoints.
Masri is but one part of Palestine’s budding entrepreneurial ecosystem: Sadara Ventures, a start-up fund founded by Saed Nashef, a Palestinian and Yadin Kaufmann, an Israeli, funds several innovative Palestinian entrepreneurs; Asma’a A. Abu Tailkh’s Ana Arabi offers educational children’s stories online in Arabic; Monzer Matrabie’s Afkartoon produces educational cartoons; and Mariam Abultewi’s Wasselni offers a taxi-ordering and carpooling app in Gaza. These are all small starts. Many are funded by investors from across the border and even from global players, such as Google. To many of us, who are experts in entrepreneurship, it is a surprise that they even exist given the primary headlines from the region.
Here is an area of potential common ground and a commonality in predicament and outlook. Israel is, for good reason, known as the Start-up Nation. It has more startups and venture capital than any country in the world, other than the U.S., and the highest per capita rate of patents filed. On the other side of the wall, Palestinians comprise a remarkably entrepreneurial community, pursuing opportunities with very few resources - largely because they have very few options. While Rawabi is spectacular by any measure, there is plenty of activity in the valley below. Across the West Bank alone, there are entrepreneurs, potential investors and opportunities for educating and tapping the talent of the more than 50 percent of the population that is under 24 years of age, according to the CIA Factbook. Gaza has an even lower median age (18.2) as compared to the West Bank’s median age of 22.4.
Despite the differences, there may, in fact, be opportunities to hear fresh ideas for collaboration across these contested borders. Both sides can benefit from inputs and markets on opposite sides of the border and both have to contend with the scarcity of resources. Both can find opportunities to solve problems, and make a profit.
Experts remind us that a key ingredient to a formula for sustained peace is that it must draw upon a convergence of mutual interests. Economic security is surely an issue on which Israelis and Palestinians can agree even if there will always be disagreement over history, religion and politics. So why not move the peace process away from the historical, religious and political centers? Why not bring Israel’s entrepreneurial firepower to Palestine? Why can’t Israeli companies find talent and investment options across the border? Why can’t startups on both sides find markets across the border? Of the 200 plus multinationals that have rushed to Israel to set up centers, why wouldn’t they find it in their interests to fund such efforts, and have a larger pool to draw upon and benefit from, not living with the uncertainty that the FAA might cancel flights to Ben Gurion Airport when the next war breaks out?
Go ahead, crack negotiators, travel to Rawabi City for the next round of peace talks. Even if it may require some makeshift meeting and travel arrangements — Rawabi is far being a functional city — it sends a message. It is a turn away from the same failed formula and failed sources of leadership. The organizers for this next round of negotiations should make sure of two things: first, order a very large table for the Rawabi peace talks to accommodate all the entrepreneurs and investors in addition to the unavoidable usual suspects who need to be seated around it. Second, as a sign of its commitment to a solution, the Israeli authorities should turn on the water supply to Rawabi.
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