The Gaza Strip is about twice the size of the Washington, DC. Its approximately two million inhabitant are under the control of Hamas, a fearsome, fanatical group aided and supplied by Iran. The current round of fighting that is killing people and destroying the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip is the worst in 10 years. More than 1,800 Gazans, including a large number of women and children, have been killed. Thus far in the ghastly conflict, Israeli losses amount to over 60. If an agreement to end the fighting is going to be reached, Hamas has to give up its missiles and recognize Israel’s right exist. Israel will have to halt the lengthy blockade that has stifled Gaza’s economy. Until such an agreement is reached, the cease fire arrangements will continue to periodically break down.
The sorry situation in Gaza is a result of the many years of failure to resolve the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just 21 years ago, most observers thought a lasting peace was a real possibility. During the signing of the Middle East peace initiative on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat had shaken hands. The Clinton administration firmly believed the emerging peace process could be enhanced by promoting economic development in the West Bank and Gaza, regions with high population growth, chronic unemployment, the scarcity of water and poor economic management. The promotion of investment would aid in demonstrating the benefits of peace. The resulting improvement in living standards would undermine the position of the rejectionists.
The West Bank and Gaza needed an economic boost. Although the Palestinian people were deemed to be hard-working with great entrepreneurial skills, political factors were deterring development. A spurt in economic growth could help reduce cultural barriers and take the edge off longstanding animosities. The development of a healthy and viable system of free enterprise in the occupied territories would also give support to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
To get things moving, Builders for Peace, a non-profit organization, was funded with a $350,000 federal grant. Congressman Mel Levine and James Zogby were the organization’s co-chairs. Its goal was to promote private sector business development in the West Bank and Gaza by introducing American firms to local Palestinian firms interested in obtaining technical assistance and becoming involved in new ventures. The program would support the administration’s peace efforts by helping to create a strong private sector.
The program had the support of the Jewish-American and Arab-American business communities. Involvement was viewed as a vote for peace since the concept had been endorsed by PLO Chairman Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, Israeli Trade Minister Harish and Israeli Foreign Minister Peres. Builders for Peace sent an investor’s mission to the region and sponsored a series of conferences and meetings across the United States. It soon had a number of potential projects lined up including: furniture manufacturing, a bottled water facility, concrete production, a motel/business center, condominiums, a hotel, an olive oil storage and packaging facility and a crude oil processing plant.
The program soon ran into a host of problems. Along with the slow movement in the political side of the peace process, the Palestinian delay in organizing a civil and commercial code, coupled with their tendency to centralize regulations, created uncertainty that unnerved businesspeople. The Israeli civil administration did little to change the difficult process of obtaining the licenses needed to open or expand businesses. Israeli security organizations refused to speed up the shipment of goods across Palestinian borders.
The Builders for Peace program quietly sputtered out in late 1997, not a single project of the several dozen under consideration actually produced any goods. The program became a casualty of the derailed peacemaking effort as business optimism foundered on the rock of Middle Eastern political reality. The attempt to promote American-Israeli-Palestinian business ventures went down to defeat as the effort to build up the Palestinian economy collapsed. The failure was due to political impediments, not a lack of interest. There appeared to be no shortage of investors willing to get involved.
Iran has been strangely silent regarding the fighting in Gaza. It may be a signal that Iran is willing to reconsider its support for Hamas as part of deal to work out a solution to the sanctions and nuclear issues. As the negotiators attempt to end the current round of fighting in Gaza they ought to remember that small steps can and do make a long-term difference. What is now the European Union began with French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman’s modest 1950 proposal to establish an iron and steel community among recently warring neighboring countries.