May 12th 2015

An Initiative Worth Supporting

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

I have written before of some of my Palestinian American heroes, including men like Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Zahi Khouri. I want to add to that list, my friend, Sam Bahour.

Two and a half decades ago, Ibrahim was a respected tenured professor at Northwestern University and Zahi was Chairman of the Board of a major Park Avenue-based investment group.  Sam, the youngest of the group, was a successful small businessman in Youngstown, Ohio. 

When the Oslo Agreements were signed 22 years ago, these three made tough and courageous choices. Realizing that the struggle to build a new Palestinian reality was beckoning them, they pulled up stakes and moved to the parts of Palestine that were newly assigned to the fledging Palestinian Authority to become a part of the building process.

Ibrahim, who had been an important mentor to me in my formative years, relocated to Birzeit University dedicating himself to mentoring a new generation of Palestinian youth. Ibrahim passed away in 2001. 

Zahi moved to Jerusalem where he waged a difficult but ultimately victorious struggle to win the right to operate the Coca Cola franchise in the Palestinian territories. To do this he had to wrest control of the franchise from an Israeli owner who wanted to maintain control over both Israel and the occupied Palestinian lands.

For his part, Sam made a seamless transition using both his business and political acumen to contribute to setting up the first Palestinian telecommunications company, PALTEL, and the first modern Palestinian shopping center, PLAZA. Sam focuses his organizing around key issues of importance to the Palestinian American community. For many years now, Sam has been the central resource for information on the difficulties Israel has created for Palestinian Americans traveling to and working in the Palestinian Authority areas. When then Senator Barack Obama made his first visit to the West Bank in 2006, Sam joined the Palestinian business community to brief the Senator about the burdens imposed on them by the Israeli authorities. On his return to the US, Obama thanked me for the introduction and told me how much he had learned from the group. 

Now Sam Bahour has launched a new and vitally important venture. Working with a number of other Palestinian American business leaders and an impressive group of American business executives, they have launched Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy (AVPE).

I met with the group a short while back and recognized that driving their efforts were the same convictions that motivated Vice President Gore's Builders for Peace (BfP) project, with which I had been associated two decades ago.

First and foremost, there is the recognition that building the private sector, especially through the creation of small and medium-sized enterprises, is the key to job creation and economic growth and is also central to democracy. Another important consideration is the fact that while business development and job creation are no substitute for political progress in establishing an independent Palestinian state, it is wrong to insist that efforts to grow the economy and create jobs take a back seat to political developments.

They also realize that the Israeli occupation has placed crippling impediments on the Palestinian business community leading to distortions in the Palestinian economy. Palestinians can't freely import raw materials or export their products. Because their access to external and even internal markets is limited by the Israeli occupation, businesses can't easily grow or benefit from economies of scale. As a result, the Palestinian Authority has become the single largest employer and has, itself, become dependent on foreign financial support.

And finally, they understand that despite these difficulties, the enterprising Palestinian private sector has not only survived, but has continued to play a central role in the economic life of their country. While the private sector accounts for slightly less than the Palestinian Gross Domestic Product, it accounts for almost two-thirds of all employment in the territories.

The bottom line is that the private sector is essential, resilient, and dynamic. And because it is surviving against amazing odds, it deserves support.

This important truth, though recognized by Vice President Gore, was never understood by the Clinton Administration's "peace team". Instead of seeing business development as an essential parallel track to the "peace process", they deemed it unworthy of their attention. They refused to challenge the Israeli impediments to a free Palestinian economy, concerned that this was a distraction that would put the Israelis on edge, thus complicating their negotiating strategy. 

As a result, the Palestinian private sector was left to fend for itself—until now. AVPE is determined to change this negative dynamic by "linking American businesses to Palestinian partners in an effort to bolster the Palestinian economy's ability to withstand continued Israeli constraints on growth". They "believe that every business transaction completed and every job created will plant seeds of hope" to continue to motivate Palestinians to seek a brighter future.

AVPE is inviting American businesses to partner with and/or invest in small and medium sized Palestinian businesses—to provide them with needed capital, to give them support, and to assist them in finding markets for their products. Their website - www.a4vpe.org - provides information on how potential investors and partners can be supportive.

The AVPE effort is not a substitute for Palestinian independence—since it recognizes that only with independence can the full potential of the Palestinian economy be realized. At the same time, however, AVPE knows that creating jobs, finding markets, and growing the private sector can't be set aside for another 20 years because Palestinians need to feed their families and provide for their essential needs today. 

Sam and his pioneering team recognize that they are inviting businesses to take a risk, but they believe that these are risks that promise high rewards for peace and prosperity. The AVPE is an initiative worth supporting.

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