As the clock ticks on the nine-month period for negotiations with the Palestinians, the media is awash with commentators scrambling to be the first to declare the current effort a failure.
Twenty years after the Oslo Accords were signed, and after numerous false dawns, I can readily sympathise with the degree of public scepticism and apathy that forms the backdrop to the current effort underway between Israel and the Palestinians. But away from the negotiating rooms and out of the media spotlight, developments are taking place on the ground that give one hope.
A few weeks back I visited Rawabi, a planned Palestinian city – the first ever – taking shape in the hilltops just north of Ramallah, and only 25km from Jerusalem. It’s a massive project, built to provide modern and affordable housing for the burgeoning Palestinian middle-class population, with its $1 billion pricetag funded by private developers. When complete it will provide housing for 25,000 people, along with sports facilities, commercial and retail space, schools and environmentally-friendly infrastructure.
Along with the five thousand Palestinians the project employs, it is also making a significant contribution to the Israeli economy. Much of the building materials for Rawabi come through Israeli ports and roads, and 450 Israeli companies are involved in Rawabi’s supply chain – to the tune of $100 million per year in revenue. Working alongside the blockbuilders from Jenin and stonecutters from Hebron, Israeli firms are providing the state-of-the-art technology being used in Rawabi’s waste water treatment plant, whilst the Jewish National Fund has given trees to help with reforestation.
The following week, I was at the launch of the Jerusalem Arbitration Centre, an initiative involving Israeli and Palestinian business communities and the International Chamber of Commerce headquartered in Paris. The JAC will provide a neutral mechanism of trusted third-party arbitration to resolve commercial disputes between Israeli and Palestinian businesses. In doing so, it will fill a legal gap that has hindered Israeli-Palestinian trade. The JAC’s aim is a simple one – to provide a practical solution to a practical business problem – but its side-effect will be fostering greater economic integration through trade.
Then just last week Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signed the Red Sea-Dead Sea agreement. This agreement will help revitalise the Dead Sea, generate additional fresh water for Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians, and generate electricity in the process. It’s the sort of win-win outcome that only technical innovation coupled with regional cooperation can deliver. And where water goes, gas can surely follow.
Israel will soon be in the historic position of having natural gas supplies far exceeding its needs, while Jordan and the Palestinian Authority will remain energy-poor. This provides a unique opportunity to use Israel’s gas surplus to meet the Jordanian and Palestinian gas deficit in a way that is beneficial to all sides and that contributes to regional stability.
The genius behind all these initiatives is that they are emerging from the ground up to solve practical problems and address practical needs. In doing so, they overcome or disregard political obstacles almost entirely. The business they are in is far too important to be held hostage to the ups-and-downs of the peace negotiations. And their success speaks to the banal but essential truth: that Israelis and Palestinians live in one region, and that ultimately their future lies in coexistence and cooperation.