'Breakthrough' in Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

In a surprise opportunity for peace, a few hundred business leaders in Israel and Palestinian areas join up to demand their governments make a deal. Unlike other grass-roots efforts, this one has both clout and the courage of conscience.

Palestine Development and Investment Chairman Munib al-Masri (L) and Israel's Yossi Vardi, chairman of International Technologies Ventures Inc., speak at the World Economic Forum in Jordan May 24. They helped form a group of business leaders to push for a peace deal.

In ending world conflicts, solutions often don’t start in the halls of government. Young people, religious figures, writers, or academics can galvanize popular momentum for peace. Could this now be the prototype for Israelis and Palestinians to finally achieve a two-state solution?

Last week, a few hundred top business leaders in Israel and the Palestinian territories announced an initiative to “send a message” to their respective governments to negotiate a peace deal. Unlike previous grass-roots efforts – such as joint schools, camps for children, or meetings of rabbis and imams – this one has scope and prestige. Together, the firms represent about a third of the area’s economy and employ tens of thousands of workers.

The Breaking the Impasse initiative was not an easy one to cement. Leaders held more than a dozen talks in secret over the past year. They met in places like Turkey or Switzerland to overcome differences. They had to convince enough business executives to summon the courage to face political heat – even possible threats – from extremists in Israel and the West Bank.

“We hear the voice of the extremists, but the majority is silent,” said Yossi Vardi, a famous Israeli investor in high-tech start-ups. “We believe that most of the people want to get an end to the conflict.”

Businesses often provide a bridge to peace. That was true for South Africa in the 1980s, and perhaps today between Taiwan and China or between North and South Korea. More than 20 years ago, the United States tried to get Arab and Israeli investors to work together. The best model is the postwar alliance between France and Germany to use economic union as a peace driver in Europe.

This initiative will not only help expose the will of the peace-minded middle but also shore them up to accept difficult compromises in negotiations, such  as acknowledging the sovereignty and security of each side.

“The biggest risk is we begin to treat the conflict like a chronic disease, that it’s something that cannot be solved,” said Mr. Vardi.

His partner in the initiative, Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri, points out one practical advantage of this group. “As businessmen,” he said, “we say this deal is doable.”

Still, they decided to leave it to the respective governments to offer the specific compromises – most of which everyone already knows anyway. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave a public nod to the initiative. So did US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has made four Middle East shuttle missions in less than four months trying to restart peace talks between the two leaders.

The real model in this initiative isn’t really the clout of big businesses to push a deal. It is the welcome reality of so many prominent individuals fearlessly looking into their conscience and making a collective choice for hope and peace.

These business leaders are in touch almost daily with their workers, taking the pulse of Palestinian and Israeli society. They are also proven risk-takers. They know the shame of failure and the rewards of success. They seek both prosperity and peace. By so obviously linking the two, perhaps this initiative might be the one that finally works.

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