PM Fayyad, President Abbas & Quartet Envoy Blair at the conference (AP)"For those who have long advocated for improvement on movement and access issues, the Palestine Investment Conference experience illustrates Israeli capabilities on the positive side of the ledger."
The Palestine Investment Conference in Bethlehem held May 21-23 turned out to be the milestone its sponsors had promised. For those who recognize the mutual Palestinian, Israeli, U.S. and regional interests served by the establishment of a sustainable, functioning Palestinian state alongside Israel as soon as possible, it was a glass half full. The conference brought together local, regional and international investors and demonstrated the potential for economic development and security cooperation necessary for political progress.
I attended last week’s conference with low expectations. Palestinian and Israeli friends and colleagues had warned me for months in advance: Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad was doing this only because the Americans had pushed him and the conference would be an embarrassment; it could never come together in time. He was being set up for failure, said some Palestinian colleagues. Others cautioned that those who did want to come from Arab countries would have too difficult a time with Israeli travel restrictions at Ben-Gurion Airport or the Allenby Bridge, a main border crossing from Jordan; difficulties that would be compounded by the hassles from Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers at checkpoints that would await them if they were admitted.
One thing evident from this pre-conference pessimism is that Israelis and Palestinians share far more than they like to acknowledge, including a need to insulate themselves from too many harsh realities with protective layers of cynicism.
It first occurred to me that the gloomy picture painted by many in advance of the conference would not come to pass when I arrived at Ben Gurion: greeters with “PIC-Bethlehem” signs met me, politely expedited my entry, took care of my passport and escorted me all the way to my taxi. Never before when acknowledging that I would be visiting the Palestinian territories had I been so well received at the Tel Aviv airport.
Next I learned that the conference was dramatically oversubscribed; hundreds more had registered than were originally anticipated. I observed this directly as I sat in the crowd spilling over into the overflow room for the opening plenary, a plenary that included more than a hundred businesspeople from Gaza and representatives from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries.
Panels were devoted in large part to mainstay investment topics—discussion of financing, information technology, manufacturing, infrastructure, and construction sectors—but the conference did not shy away from tough issues unique to the area. A session devoted to “revitalizing Gaza” included Prime Minister Fayyad along with Planning Minister Samir Abdullah. Another session was focused on “East Jerusalem: Untapped Potential.”
At the margins of the panels and plenary sessions, leaders from both the private and public sector made investment announcements and commitments. Several stood out for their aim, scope and potential impact if their implementation goes forward as intended. For example, a leading Qatari firm, Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company, and Palestinian developer Bashar Masri signed an agreement to finance Rawabi, a major new affordable housing community near Ramallah. The project is expected to cost nearly $350 million and house more than 25,000, and it will create significant construction jobs. Affordable mortgage financing facilities also are being developed in parallel to meet market needs.
On a smaller scale but to fill a critically important market demand, the Palestinian Political Risk Insurance Project (PPRI), a project on which I work, agreed to provide affordable political risk insurance covering trade disruption and asset damage resulting from political violence to small businesses. PPRI will establish a facility funded by public and private capital that will include the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a U.S. government agency, and the Middle East Investment Initiative (MEII), an independent nonprofit organization formed to help revitalize economies in the region. Initially, OPIC will partner with MEII, to reinsure the National Insurance Company (NIC), a local Palestinian insurance company, for $5 million in political risk insurance that the NIC is providing to small businesses. Ultimately, the PPRI’s capacity is expected to grow to $20 million.
Laced throughout the conference panels, discussions and side conversations were expected references to burdens, political and economic, imposed by Israeli occupation, starting with movement and access of goods and people and the connections between those issues, settlements and security. Yet for once these words were coming from people who had made it to the conference with dignity intact and far greater ease than is the norm in these parts.
The conference closed with an opportunity to attend Friday prayers in Jerusalem and tour the Old City. For many who cannot otherwise easily access Jerusalem this in itself was no small incentive to attend.
The Israeli cooperation required to make this conference proceed as it did, without incident, with the flow of this number of participants from this range of countries was outstanding. Top leaders in Israel had clearly given directions to make things run so smoothly and extraordinary efforts were made throughout the chain of command. The IDF soldiers manning checkpoints entering and leaving Bethlehem, for example, were all officers, all spoke English (not just Hebrew), were easy-going in manner and were clearly instructed to speak courteously and treat as guests all those going to and from the conference. For many people who had frequented checkpoints in the past, this was not a typical experience. At the same time, the Palestinian security forces showed skill, commitment and professionalism as they managed crowds in and around Bethlehem. From the varied uniforms, it appeared that multiple security services were deployed and coordinating their efforts, another mark of improved training.
For those who have long advocated for improvement on movement and access issues, the Palestine Investment Conference experience illustrates Israeli capabilities on the positive side of the ledger. It also showed hopeful signs of what Palestinian security forces might be able to accomplish. Carrying out this kind of effort on a sustained basis and throughout the territories is exponentially more challenging. But when leaders make it a priority, it is a challenge that can be met.
Although the Bethlehem conference exceeded the expectations of many, the reality check of setbacks and negative incidents intruded at key moments, as is often the case in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the second day of the conference, an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber on the Gaza side of the Erez checkpoint killed himself and, fortunately, no one else, but closed off passage home to the 100 plus Gazans attending, who must await the reopening of Erez before they receive permission from Israel to return home. This incident served as a reminder that extremist groups often work to play the spoilers at key moments like this conference—and it also served to illustrate what is at stake and why it is so important to press forward for tangible economic and political progress at the same time.
Last week’s Palestine Investment Conference, with its key announcements of deals and commitments, represents important steps forward in the process of building a sustainable Palestinian economy that will provide a strong foundation for a state. As important was the commitment illustrated by coordinated efforts on the ground by Israelis and Palestinians, likely with some U.S. support, that were required to get participants to the conference, and to allow it to proceed, so that these announcements could occur. Now, this mutual commitment and coordination must continue so that agreements can be implemented and Israelis and Palestinians alike can see that progress—economic, political and on the day-to-day issues—is possible, desired and necessary for all involved. Access the full article>>