Earlier this month, on a mild winter’s day in Minnesota, I shared hummus with Ramallah’s Mercedes dealer.
I suspect that if you asked one hundred Americans how many Mercedes dealers there are in Ramallah, very few would guess any. Moreover, you would probably get more than a few withering looks to indicate the foolishness of your question.
The ignorance about this aspect of life in the West Bank is understandable, given the media’s obsessive focus on Israelis and Palestinians within the framework of their long-running conflict.
The bias toward covering the conflict to the exclusion of anything else is unfortunate for many reasons, including this: we need more stories about Palestinian business leaders who express a moderate point of view, who voice support for two states for two peoples, and who are working to overcome multiple barriers to build something positive in their society.
My meal with the Mercedes dealer was part of a formal dinner with a delegation of Palestinian business leaders from the Palestinian American Chamber of Commerce.
These Palestinian business leaders came to the United States on week-long “Roadshow” visit to deliver this message: “We are open for Business. The West Bank and Gaza are a viable market open to trade and direct investments.”
The American Consul General in Jerusalem, Michael Ratney, accompanied the Palestinian Delegation, along with members of the American Consulate in Jerusalem’s Economic Section, officials of the United States Government’s Departments of State, and a representative from the Office of the Quartet Representative.
The Palestinian Delegation stopped first in Washington, D.C, where they met with Secretary of State John Kerry and members of Congress, then Chicago, and concluded their Roadshow with meetings in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.
Why the Twin Cities? We are the home of eighteen Fortune 500 Companies, such as United Health Group, Target Corporation, 3M, Best Buy, Medtronic and General Mills, as well as the privately held Cargill, which is one of America’s ten largest companies.
More than that, however, the Twin Cities is the adopted home of Walid Issa, a remarkable young Palestinian who was instrumental in bringing the Roadshow to Minnesota and organized our dinner.
This charismatic 26 year old Palestinian is a graduate student in economics at Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University, fiercely committed to a two-state solution, and bravely opposed to the delegitimization of Israel.
He has channeled his considerable talent and energy into Shades, an executive negotiation and leadership program he co-founded with Lior Frankiensztajn, of Tel Aviv, which brings together Israeli and Palestinian young professionals for training in negotiation and conflict resolution. Walid works tirelessly toward a vision of a prosperous Palestinian State that can live peacefully next to Israel.
In 2013 he made a TED talk in which he holds up the key to the home that his grandparents fled in the 1948 War. In this speech, Walid says that this key is the symbol which motivates him to work toward building a peaceful future where the young people on both sides of the conflict see themselves not just as victims, but as partners in shared prosperity.
More recently, Walid has discussed the Palestinian “right of return” as something which is both a “right that endures” and as “the return which for the sake of peace cannot be exercised”. In so doing, Walid exhibits more wisdom and maturity than the vast majority of leaders on both sides of the conflict and the justifiably maligned “peace process”.
Walid is not just the Palestinian, but also my friend and neighbor, who I want to talk with on days when I need a boost of hope.
It was this same spirit of optimism and desire to build a better future that I heard in the presentations of the Palestinian business leaders who spoke to our small group of Minnesota Jewish business and community leaders.
Each Palestinian banker, entrepreneur, or manufacturer spoke passionately of their desire and plans to grow the Palestinian economy. Many spoke of strong partnerships with Israeli businesses. Support for the two state solution was mentioned again and again. The sentiment heard was that boycotts and disinvestment of Israel are not helpful, but rather what is helpful is investment in Palestinian businesses and Palestine.
Many expressed frustration with the Israeli occupation and/or the one sidedness of their trade with Israel (Israel should do much more to not only export to the Palestinian economy, but import from them as well), but each leader underscored that they would, nonetheless, persevere in building and growing their businesses.
Like Walid, despite the very real challenges the conflict presents, their frank rejection of a victim mentality was striking.
As Walid says: “To be a victim is self fulfilling but also it’s self defeating. Self fulfilling individually and collectively, and self defeating because it requires you to be satisfied with the aid money to survive. You get stuck in the past looking for your dignity that you once owned and you continue to fight. We have to reverse the victimhood mentality from self defeating to self empowering for our own well being and to be a good toward others.”
Throughout the dinner as well as at a panel presentation afterwards at Hamline University Law School, business was the topic at hand and politics was avoided. That seemed appropriate for this first time, get-acquainted visit, but it left me with one important question:
How much- if any- influence do these business leaders have within the Palestinian political sphere?
While a strong economy is an essential element to a future Palestinian state, so much else is needed: political leaders who have abandoned maximalist dreams and have prepared their people for compromise, an educational system that teaches coexistence, an end to anti-Semitic incitement.
In this regard Palestinian political leaders have utterly, totally, and completely failed.
Likewise, many of my fellow Jews wonder if Israel’s leadership has done all that it can to prepare Israelis for a future in which the land now controlled by Israel is divided into two states.
If the Palestinian political sphere could be led by leaders as pragmatic, positive, and forward thinking as these businessmen, perhaps this decades long conflict would have a chance of being resolved.
As for the Israeli political sphere, upcoming elections will demand that Israelis ask themselves serious questions about their own future leadership.
Returning to my friend Walid, he is not shy about demanding that “it’s time to allow the Palestinian to thrive, not only survive. Allow them to create, produce and innovate. If we are serious about moving toward a better future for both Palestinians and Israelis, we have to strengthen the economy and make them good neighbors within and with each other.”
“Palestinian moderates” is not an oxymoron- these moderates are real and they need our support and friendship.
In a region where good news is hard to find, I will take good news wherever I can find it. And I will continue to use whatever power and influence I have to ensure that somehow, some way, the Walid Issas of this world- along with his Israeli counterparts- will eventually take charge of the future.