JERUSALEM, Israel – President Trump has yet to unveil his peace plan but after 25 years of the failed peace process. Israelis and Palestinians are trying a different approach: grassroots business ties that are building the economy and good relationships.
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman spoke to Israeli and Palestinian business and community leaders at a first of its kind conference, the International Economic Forum.
"As the children of Abraham, there is far more that unites us than divides us. We are not destined to fight. It is not our legacy to quarrel,” Friedman said.
Later, Friedman told CBN News that just signing a piece of paper won’t bring peace.
“The last time anybody signed a piece of paper was in Oslo in '93 but no efforts were undertaken then to make peace between the people. It was peace on a piece of paper. And of course, you know, we know what happened. The next year there was a four-fold increase in terrorism,” Friedman said.
Israeli government minister Michael Oren said there needs to be a new approach.
“I mean the whole idea of Palestinian-Israeli relationships, really since the early 90s, to my mind has been exactly backward,” Oren told CBN News.
“It should begin just with this – with the Israelis and Palestinian businesspeople, entrepreneurs, educators, sitting together and building a relationship from the bottom up,” Oren said.
Friedman said the new business approach doesn’t replace a peace process but makes one possible. Building business relations would “create opportunities for each other and then when the paper comes, it means something.”
Palestinians already do hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business with Israelis each year. About 120,000 Palestinians go to work inside Israel each day and another 40,000 work in Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria. But that’s often not the narrative portrayed.
Heather Johnston, founder of the US Israel Education Association said there’s another narrative.
“The other narrative is that you’ve got more than 90 percent of Palestinians today that are working with or that are wanting to work with Israelis. They want normal relationships. They want to be able to feed their children. They want their children to have great education. They want prosperity,” Johnston told CBN News.
“Israel is the neighbor. Israel has the technology. They have the innovative economy that is flourishing,” Johnston said. “Israel wants to work with the Palestinians because they want peace with their neighbors.”
Johnston’s group co-sponsored the forum along with the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The Chamber of Commerce was co-founded a year and half ago by Israeli Avi Zimmerman who lives in Ariel, and Palestinian Ashraf Jabari, who lives in Hebron.
“There is a paradigm shift here where we recognize the role of government but we are not putting all of our eggs in that basket,” Zimmerman told CBN News.
“We need to look to a different sector, not the government sector for stability and sustainability. We need to look to the business sector. This is a business sector empowerment movement where we say, businesspeople are the ones paying people’s salaries,” Zimmerman explained.
“They’re the ones who allow the average individual to put food on his table and tuck his kids into a safe bed at the end of the day. That community needs to grow stronger,” he said.
“First of all we’re neighbors, in the territories, in Hebron. Our neighbors are Jewish,” Jabari told CBN News.
Jabari, who heads a powerful clan in Hebron, explained that after the 1967 Six-Day War, Israelis and Palestinians began to work together.
“We worked together 50 years ago. We bought and sold. There wasn’t anything (bad between us). It wasn’t strange,” he said.
They did so for more than two decades until the Oslo Accords brought in a new regime headed by Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat. Then it all stopped.
“The politics in our area (now) is making all these problems,” he said.
US Senator James Lankford (R-OK) says Congress is paving the way for the US government to back this project.
“So for the first time ever American financial dollars are actually going toward helping cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian business leaders in cooperating together,” Lankford told CBN News.
Lankford said it’s not about a peace process but simply about making peace.
“One of the areas we need to be able to see is more engagement on the business side, where it’s just family to family and business to business, actually doing it,” Lankford said.
“It’s one thing to have a political peace settlement…but it’s another thing just to be able to see families take care of other families and their own family in business. That’s the heart of what most people do day to day,” he added.
Jabari says the only way to go forward is for Israelis and Palestinians to work together.
“There’s no other way (except) we all live together,” he said. “We are looking toward the future of our children from both sides (Israelis and Palestinians). Whoever wants real peace, in my opinion, has to continue in this way,” he said.
Jabari added: “I’m not afraid of anyone in the world. I only fear God. My life is in His hands.”