Posted on January 31, 1994 in Washington Watch
Builders for Peace (BFP), the American project launched by Vice President Al Gore to promote private investment in the West Bank and Gaza, has just completed a week-long visit to the Middle East.
The visit included stops in Tunisia, Jordan, the West Bank and Israel and was led by BFP’s co-Presidents, former U.S. Congressman Mel Levine and myself. While the major focus of the trip was designed to bring potential U.S. investors to meet with and develop ties with Palestinian partners, the BFP delegation also conducted briefing sessions with important regional political and business leaders and jointly sponsored a U.S.-Palestinian business roundtable discussion in Bethlehem with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown.
During its week-long stay in the region, the BFP leadership met with PLO Chairman Yasir `Arafat, Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia, leaders of the Tunisian, Jordanian and Israeli business communities, Israeli Minister of Industry and Trade Micah Harish, Palestinian officials in the West Bank and Gaza, and over 100 Palestinian business leaders from the Occupied Territories.
While the visit was met with widespread enthusiasm for investment and economic growth in the Palestinian lands; it also discovered real frustration with the slow pace of the peace process and fear that further stalemate would erode the support for the process that was generated by the September 13th events; and concern, especially among political leaders, that without real progress toward implementation of the accords, foreign economic involvement in the Palestinian territories will be stalled.
In Tunisia, we found the Foreign Minister to be fully supportive of bringing new private investment to the West Bank and Gaza. He was not only enthusiastic about the BFP program, but was also eager to see the Tunisian business community participate in tri-lateral U.S.-Tunisian-Palestinian ventures.
The Tunisian business leadership has already begun to explore business contacts in the Occupied Territories, and in a week’s time will be sending a delegation to the West Bank and Gaza to gain first-hand experience regarding the opportunities available to them, both in direct Tunisian-Palestinian joint ventures and also in Tunisian-Palestinian-Israeli economic projects.
In Tunisia, the BFP leadership met with PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat. While Arafat expressed his strong endorsement of BFP and praised the initiative launched by Vice President Gore, he also expressed the widespread Palestinian concern that without real progress on the political front, the entire peace process could unravel. Recognizing that genuine progress required movement on the economic front, he nevertheless focused his attention on the political problems currently being negotiated with the Israelis.
In an effort to make clear his strong support for BFP, Chairman Arafat delivered to the co-Presidents an endorsement which read, in part:
“I…commend the tireless efforts made by both of you personally in directing Builders for Peace so as to realize the objectives you set for strengthening bilateral relationships among us and for deepening economic and investment cooperation in the Palestinian Territories, especially so that you were successful in attracting a number of U.S. businessmen and investors to have interest in the Palestinian economy.
“I wish your…success…will contribute to furthering our efforts and those of our Palestinian people to establish economic and organic structures and institutions on the road to establishing a dynamic, vital and creative economy which will open up wide horizons for the creative capabilities of our people, and which will strengthen the confidence of friendly investors from other countries in the Palestinian economy.
”...Therefore, I appeal to all investors from the U.S.A. and the other friendly countries to invest in Palestine to revive the nascent Palestinian economy, because that will have a great influence on solidifying the basis of a just peace….”
The Jordanian business leadership was as eager as any group to begin investment in the West Bank and Gaza, but was a bit more jaded. Since many are Palestinians who own property, businesses or have other strong connections to the West Bank, they know first-hand the difficulties of doing business with the Israeli occupation authorities. The general consensus of these Jordanian business leaders with whom we met was that as long as the Declaration of Principles goes unimplemented, and the Israeli Administration in the territories and its regulatory regime stayed in control, investment in growing the Palestinian economy was not possible.
These Jordanian business leaders, while eager to renew their economic connection to the West Bank are not enthusiastic about doing so as long as they must deal with an Israeli occupation administration. Our discussions with them included reports of their frustrations with their separation from the West Bank and their past dealings with Israeli authorities. They reported confiscations of family-owned land, long waits for or denials of building permits, denials of licenses and the absence of banking institutions (due to Israeli closure of Jordanian banks in the territories) as reasons for their concern.
Nevertheless, in part because of their personal connections to the West Bank, and because these businessmen sense real investment possibilities, they were eager to work with BFP to form joint partnerships to promote growth and regional economic cooperation.
These sober yet hopeful assessments did not prepare us for the attitudes we discovered among the Palestinian business leaders we met in our three days of meetings in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. These meetings were the centerpiece of our visit and brought together our BFP leadership and a delegation of 20 American businessmen and over 100 Palestinians from a variety of economic sectors in the West Bank and Gaza. The meetings were organized by sector, including separate roundtable discussions representing the following groups:
Â· leather and footwear,
Â· manufacturing, and
What was most striking about these meetings was the difference between the attitudes these Palestinians had toward economic prospects and those shared by their political leadership both inside and outside the territories. They came ready to do business and saw no reason to delay in developing joint ventures. They understood that the need to make progress on the political front and they realized all the hardships imposed upon economic activity by the Israeli regulatory regime – but these businessmen and women had worked with this regime in the past and succeeded despite it.
Despite the burdens and the inequities of Israeli policy, despite the absence of capital and access to markets, the Palestinian business community creatively adapted itself to its harsh environment, employs thousands, produces a wide variety of goods and services and became economically viable. They urged the U.S. businessmen to invest now so as to bring the fruits of peace quickly to the territories and assist them in achieving economic independence and building their own economic infrastructure.
Even before BFP left Jerusalem, U.S. investors had begun to develop partnerships with Palestinian businessmen. And in the week since the completion of the mission, major agreements are being worked out in textiles, bottling beverages, pharmaceuticals and handicrafts.
U.S. commitment to BFP and to American investment in the West Bank and Gaza remains high. One of the final events of the BFP visit to the West Bank and Gaza was a business roundtable in Bethlehem. The event was co-sponsored by BFP and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown – a clear indication of the Clinton Administration’s support for promoting economic relations between the Palestinian and U.S. business communities. Speaking to the 20 American and 30 Palestinian leaders assembled at the roundtable, Secretary Brown praised the Palestinian private sector. Reporting on what he had seen in his short stay in the region, he noted, “The talent, energy and vision is there – if we remove the obstacles, it will flourish.”
And speaking on his return to the U.S., just two days later at the Arab American Institute’s conference in Washington, Secretary Brown elaborated on his views that the Palestinian business community needed to be supported immediately. He said:
”...as Secretary of Commerce, my principle focus is how we can create economic opportunity, how can we create economic growth, how can we create jobs so that people can take care of the basic needs of their families, and that is particularly the case in the West Bank and Gaza.
“I know we talk about the peace process on this track, and economic opportunity on another track. I think they are inextricably tied together.
“As the prospects for peace become more apparent, the expectations of people are raised. We have to do everything we can to meet those expectations. They are only going to be met through economic development; they are only going to be met through jobs; they are only going to be met through economic opportunity; and I think we have to find a way to get the political discussion and the economic discussion moving at the same time. And that is why I spent a good deal of time trying to convince American businessman and women to that they ought to be investing and forming commercial and economic relationships, not only throughout the region, but in particular in those areas of the region that need the most help, specifically the West Bank and Gaza. And, believe it or not, there is some response to that.
And later, in the same speech, the Secretary said,
“I think there are people who want to see change, who understand that occupation of the territories is unacceptable, who understand that the disparity in the lives of human beings is unacceptable, who understand that people of goodwill have to step in and try to make a difference.
One of the things that concerned me was that too often the business leaders were way ahead of the political leaders. The business leaders seemed to understand what this was all about: this is about changing lives. The political leaders were saying, `No, we have to dot every I and cross every t before we can get on with economic development.’
I think that’s nonsense. I think there is no time to waste. I think we have to start dealing with these real issues while we seek a final peace settlement. I don’t think you can ask people to keep suffering while too much posturing and focus on symbolism goes on and not enough focus is on what is happening to human lives. And I’m encouraged that there is a growing consensus, and that is why `Builders for Peace’ is having such growing success.”
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