Billionaires join hands in pursuit of Palestinian-Israeli peace

At the World Economic Forum in the Dead Sea resort last weekend, the two businessmen, one Israeli, one Palestinian, launched an ambitious initiative to try to get peace talks restarted between the respective governments.

Munib al-Masri chairman of the Palestine Development and Investment Company (Padico) speaks as Israeli Yossi Vardi chairman of International Technologies listens on at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa on the shores of the Dead Sea, 55 kms southeast of the Jordanian capital Amman, on May 26, 2013. AFP PHOTO/KHALIL MAZRAAWI

 *** Local Caption ***  203037-01-08.jpg
Powered by automated translation

Yossi Vardi and Munib Al Masri share many things in common. Both are self-made billionaires approaching the end of their careers; both are committed to the cause of Palestinian-Israeli peace, and both have direct personal experience of the effects of continuing hostility in the Middle East's most intractable problem.

What divides them is one thing. Mr Vardi is an Israeli, born in Tel Aviv, while Mr Al Masri is a Palestinian from Nablus, in the heart of the occupied West Bank. In the region, that is a pretty fundamental difference, but it has not stopped them from becoming friends and business partners and joining hands to try to halt the decades-long cycle of violence in the Palestinian Territories.

At the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Dead Sea resort last weekend, the two businessmen launched an ambitious initiative to try to get peace talks restarted between the respective governments.

Under the WEF's banner of "breaking the impasse", they signed up about 300 local businessmen from both sides of the divide to urge, cajole and persuade political leaders to give peace a chance.

For each man, there is an intensely personal side to the story. "I recently celebrated my 70th birthday, and for most of my life I have lived under the shadow of this conflict. My children and grandchildren were born into it," said Mr Vardi.

"Enough is enough!" shouted a clearly emotional Mr Vardi. "Too many tears have been shed by mothers."

Mr Al Masri also revealed a personal trauma at the heart of the initiative. Two years ago, his 23-year-old grandchild was confined to a wheelchair after being shot by a sniper in the West Bank. "This is a very honest initiative. For the sake of our grandchildren, we are not going to settle for the status quo. If we do not at least try to bring peace, we will be forever cursed," he said.

If their business careers are anything to go by, both men usually achieve what they set out to do. Mr Vardi ("call me Yossi, please") is regarded as the founder of Israel's high-tech industry, which has become one of the main planks of the country's economy.

Perhaps his best known company is Mirabilis, which developed ICQ, the first internet-wide instant messaging service. The sale of Mirabilis to AOL for more than US$400 million in 1998 made him a role model for a whole new generation of Israeli entrepreneurs.

A string of advisory positions followed, with the Israeli government and other international bodies, such as the WEF itself. He is now regarded as the country's pre-eminent technology businessman.

Mr Al Masri's wealth is rooted in the Palestine Development and Investment Company (Padico), which is an industrial and services conglomerate that almost acts as an inward-investing agency for the Palestinian economy.

He has dabbled in local politics before, launching a political party to rival the existing ones and, it is said, turning down the job of Palestinian prime minister.

For the initiative launched at the Dead Sea, both men pulled in contacts built up over a lifetime in business. Mr Vardi and Mr Al Masri were flanked by a sprinkling of the top business leaders in the region, including Riad Kamal, the founder of Arabtec, the UAE contractor.

Mr Kamal said: "I am a Palestinian from the diaspora, and this initiative is a way to voice my personal opinion. We are urging Israel and Palestine to talk seriously about peace. We are sitting on a volcano that is going to erupt, and we should bring peace between the two countries once and for all."

The businessmen united behind the initiative are aware of the limitations of their plan. Just getting the 300 in the same room proved to be a logistical problem amid the tight security at the Dead Sea resort, and Palestinian businessmen in particular leave themselves open to charges of treachery if they develop too close links with their Israeli counterparts.

Observers at the launch in Jordan pointed out that, beyond urging and persuading, there was little the group could actually do to get the peace process going again, if the politicians are opposed.

"We want to support our leaders. We met with [the Israeli] prime minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu earlier this week, and he gave his support to our plans. We have to transmit to them the feeling that the greater part of Israeli society is behind it," said Mr Vardi.

Mr Al Masri agreed. "The initiative is not about trying to create an economic peace, business on its own cannot bring peace. We are not here to tell the political leaders what the final details of a peace agreement should be. But there is a great potential for us in working together and that will be realised once our leaders bring us peace."

Mr Vardi agrees on the potential. "I dream of Silicon Valley spreading across both banks of the river Jordan," he said.