A seminal moment in Arab politics..

24 Jun

Having hung out endlessly in coffee shops with our cousins, from pretty much everywhere, I can tell you I really like the Lebanese. So I allow myself to sometimes be a little harsh on them..

In 1964 the PLO was established and set up shop in Jordan. Pretty soon we heard about “a state within a state” as the Palestinians took sort-of-sovereign control over areas and authority in Jordan. It deteriorated into a mini-war which the King nearly lost (but didn’t). The Palestinians (the PLO that is) were kicked out of Jordan in September 1970, known as Black September, and arrived in Lebanon where my story of Lebanon begins.

Fairly soon we again heard about the state-within-a-state only this time the Palestinians didn’t challenge the central authority of the Lebanese government – they never saw Lebanon as something they had a sovereign claim to. Nonetheless, the Palestinians took over vast tracts of land and authority.

Very soon we heard the Lebanese complaining that the Palestinians were being horrible to them. Syria, ostensibly at the invitation of the Lebanese, “in order to protect our brothers and sisters, the Lebanese, from those horrible Palestinians”, invaded Lebanon. Next thing you know, we heard the Lebanese moaning that the Palestinians are horrible people and the Syrians are real nasty as well.

Fast forward to 1982 and that monster, the Israeli, invaded Lebanon (never mind why). You can just imagine what went on then: “those Palestinians are horrible people and the Syrians are real nasty and those Israelis, the devil incarnate”, the Lebanese whined.

No-one cared. The opposite, in 1991 a deal was done: “all those Lebanese ever do,” said the broker “is whine and complain about how everyone is horrible. You can have Lebanon,” the Syrians were told, “in exchange for joining the Allies to throw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.”

For almost 35 years all the Lebanese did was moan and complain and whine about how everyone was being horrible to them. And no-one cared. By now both the Palestinians (the PLO that is) and the Israelis were out of Lebanon. The Syrian occupation of Lebanon continued. Till March 14, 2005. One month after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri.

On March 14, 2005 hundreds of thousands of Lebanese (some say as many as a million) descended on downtown Beirut and said something fascinating: “We’re not complaining or whining or bitching anymore. We’re taking responsibility for ourselves. And we want the Syrians out of Lebanon.”

The very next day presidents, prime ministers and kings of endless countries picked up the phone to Assad and told him to get the hell out of Lebanon. Within days Syria was out. Yes, they left behind intelligence assets but effectively they were gone.

It took the Lebanese 35 years to figure it out. First came taking responsibility for themselves. Then people cared and support came.

March 14, 2005 was perhaps the first time in modern Arab politics that an Arab populace took responsibility for itself. This was a seminal moment in modern Arab politics, a foundation stone for the Arab Spring more than five years later.

Note: It wasn’t exactly March 14th! It started with Rafic Hariri’s assassination and continued for some weeks but the period took on the name of a moment: March 14, the day of a massive demonstration marking one month since Hariri’s death. Poetic license..

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Nurturing Peace..

16 Jun

The anti-Israel crowd is all gung-ho on assaulting Israel’s legitimacy. They propose advancing this through imposing sanctions, calling for divestment and implementing boycotts.

Indicting Israelis for all sorts of supposed wrongs would be the ultimate thrill, turning the individual Israeli into all of Israel, facilitating the next round of assault. Isolation achieved, the undermining of the very legitimacy of Israel, they argue, is feasible.

The Arab world should consider what, if any, is the dilemma in engaging Israeli companies in business. In the telecommunications sector for example where Israel is a significant player, were the Arab world to encourage Israeli companies to bid on tenders they would get better pricing and service from Israel’s competitors across the globe. In the meantime they’re getting milked.

Around 8 percent of the cost of every product can be attributed to the freight forwarding component. Across the Arab world they import, from far away places, products which Israel can ship overnight by truck. Israel could reduce their cost by a number of percentage points. The same is true in the opposite direction.

I first visited Kuwait in 1995 and have traveled and worked fairly extensively in the Arab world including living in it for a few years. The first real money I made was in business there on behalf of Israeli companies. Arabs profited as well: clients’ owners, managers and technicians; partners, agents, distributors, others. That’s the way of business.

Business travel includes spending time at restaurants, coffee shops, shisha bars and night life. Conversation inevitably diverges from the business deal at hand, wandering off into politics, family, literature and, of course, sport. We came to know and understand, to befriend each other beyond business relationships.

Those who propagate isolating and boycotting Israel don’t know what they’re talking about. Or perhaps they see the pursuit of conflict as their real objective.

Anyone interested in conflict resolution works to bring the sides together, people-to-people, not just leadership teams negotiating. Nurturing business between the sides is making peace in the most real, tangible sense.

It’s time to stop playing sport (as an analogy for a less savory activity?) and start doing business. In sport, one side has to lose, while in business, when done correctly, all parties win. Where better a place to found a relationship than in an activity in which everyone wins?

For those of us interested in conflict resolution, we should aspire to a situation where enough people on both sides of the Arab-Israel conflict are heavily enough invested in business together such that the process of understanding, which leads to reconciliation, becomes irreversible.

For those interested in burning bridges, rather than building them, the route of boycotts is attractive. The Arab world and Palestinians in particular should understand that these people will never forgive them when we do reconcile, which we will.

A rational approach leads to a simple conclusion: There is no dilemma. Nurturing business between Israel and the Arab world is real peacemaking.

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post & San Diego Union-Tribune

Natural Partners..

13 Jun

The only difference between the two dishes “mixed Jerusalem grill” and “mixed Persian grill”: Saffron!

Put aside administrations, governments, regimes for a moment. It’s interesting to look at the peoples of the Middle East and try identify who is most like me [me plural that is – Israel]: A cosmopolitan society, a pluralistic society, an entrepreneurial society, a society which places a great weight and emphasis on education, one which embraces and partakes in the arts & culture.

It strikes me that there is no populace more like the Israeli than the Iranians. (To my mind the Lebanese come in second, perhaps together with the Iraqis.) Ironic, isn’t it? Food for thought, for one day down the road when we want to assess who our most natural partners in the neighborhood are.

There is no example in history of a regime that hasn’t gone away. It has never happened. Never has, never will. One day Iranians will decide to again take responsibility for themselves. They may well set up shop in a fashion which authentically represents who they and their ancient civilization are.

I have a sneaking suspicion they will find a ready partner and friend in the Israelis..

Ps. Of course, there’s also Turkey. But for the past few decades no-one really regarded them as part of the Middle East but rather as somewhat Europe – because they have about 12 square kilometers in Europe (actually 23,764 sq.km. ~ 3% of its landmass). So let’s leave Turkey for another occasion..

Let’s start this thing with some context..

11 Jun

I first visited Kuwait in 1995 and have travelled and worked fairly extensively in the Arab world including living in the Persian Gulf for a few years. Before joining Israel’s Foreign Ministry I spent a decade in business in the hi-tech sector, doing business development for Israeli companies, first (although not exclusively) in the Arab world.

Before the Arab Spring there were “low-news days” every nine or ten months in Cairo. Perhaps merely to fill the newspapers on those days some of the most virulent anti-Israel cartoons would be published. Many, me included sometimes, would argue these cartoons were anti-Semitic.

On each occasion I would go to a coffee shop in Tel Aviv, where I live, with a collection of Israeli papers and read the Israeli responses. As one would expect it was always dismay and despair: What kind of a relationship was this? What kind of a peace was this? How terrible..

And I would make a little private toast to the Egyptian media! Almost every time these cartoons were printed using Israeli technology which I had sold them. It wasn’t as if they didn’t know. They always visited Israel before the purchase and sent technicians for training in Israel as part of the deal. This is how I financed my apartment in Tel Aviv.

To be fair, while the newspapers in Cairo were the biggest, with the most impressive in-house printing facilities, it wasn’t only Egypt. This was true across much of the printing industry in the Arab world. Over time I didn’t only work in the pre-press industry; other industries too.

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