Last week’s historic Abraham Accords were nothing short of a diplomatic earthquake that has already begun to reshape the Middle East’s strategic landscape while sending aftershocks far beyond. The tectonic shifts that have set this process in motion have finally begun to surface, but there remain naysayers who insist on holding their ground and who run the risk of falling through the cracks.
Amid the rush to maneuver covid-19 restrictions, fly from Israel to the Emirates and go above ground with pre-existing business initiatives, the two communities that once thought they were at the epicenter of political currents have found themselves out in the cold. Decades of stale diplomacy had convinced Palestinians and their West Bank Israeli neighbors that they were the masters both of their own fate and the fate of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Empowered with an invitation to represent their respective silent majorities, a select group of politicians used their aging platforms to speak out emphatically against the US administration’s offerings.
The Palestinian Authority rejected the administration’s plans and its representatives, stating that the terms for statehood would be too costly and too favorable to Israel. Mirroring Palestinian rejectionism, a group of Israeli mayors from the region followed suit, forgoing Israeli sovereignty due to concern that the terms would be too costly and too favorable to Palestinians. With neither a Palestinian state nor Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank to speak of, diplomatic failures present an opportunity for these communities to rethink the way they plan, measure and implement progress.
The first step forward may be the most difficult, as it requires us to stare down the fault line that distinguishes between territory and society. From a territorial control perspective, politics are a simple zero-sum game; what’s good for Palestinians is bad for Israelis and vice versa. But from the vantage point of the people living in the region, everyday interaction between these communities and mutually beneficial business relationships underscore the synergistic principle that one plus one is more than two. Indeed, by steering away from old-school politics and embracing a socio-economic model for shared prosperity, both populations will experience well deserved growth.
Once the mindset shifts in favor of measurable gain, step two should follow more naturally. The anti-normalization policies of the Palestinian Authority that prevent commerce between Palestinians and Israelis of the region, the limitations on Palestinian access and transportation and the lacking coordination between Israeli and Palestinian tax systems limits the ability for the two populations to advance and streamline business partnerships. As such, the second step forward for these neighboring communities is the development of open markets and free trade policies that will allow market forces to realize their potential.
In turn, both time and the efforts of private and public leaders will tell just how challenging the third fault line is to overcome. Foreign aid, which has been showered upon Palestinians for generations, has hampered entrepreneurial enthusiasm. On a parallel yet different plane, West Bank Israelis have relegated start-up nation innovation to their day jobs in Tel Aviv, checking their inventive optimism at the door upon returning home from a long day’s work. The third step forward for these communities is to abandon the conveniences of dependence and replace them with accountability. Despite the short term withdrawal symptoms to be experienced by direct aid beneficiaries, the rewards of economic growth planning and implementation will far outweigh the perceived advantages of stagnation.
The good news is that, as with the Gulf States and their now normalized ties with Israel, the momentum for these three steps forward is already in motion. The Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry continues to coalesce hundreds of Israeli owned businesses and hundreds of Palestinian owned businesses, offering them new opportunities to reach new markets and grow their operations. Those efforts have since been met with the support of the international private investment community in the form of the Integrated Business Roundtable, which promotes the emergent Israeli-Palestinian economy through impact investments. And next month progress will be marked at the second annual Israeli Palestinian Economic Forum, a milestone event which will incentivize the entrepreneurial community with investments, launch an Israeli-Palestinian innovation accelerator program and invite the policy community to join the process of strategic development planning and financing.
The Middle East is changing fast. Politics have been trumped by economics, markets have less patience than before for overbearing regulations and home-grown innovation will inevitably outperform international sympathy. Now is the time to choose the path of entrepreneurial leadership as economic opportunity knocks.