Sunday, April 26, 2015

HBS Conference considers MidEast conflict through lens of economic engagement and civil society

For decades - centuries really - visionaries and mad men have wrestled with how to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East. Some have tried force, others diplomacy, but I have long thought that one of the more important aspect of any successful peace effort between Israel and the Palestinians will require not merely the cessation of hostilities, but a normalization of relations. This is certainly not a unique suggestion, but it is one that often gets lost in the discussion about security fences, rockets and land. One key element of normalized relations will be economic engagement, something that a group of Harvard graduate students highlighted at the Prosperity for Peace conference, held at Harvard Business School this weekend and co-sponsored by the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, McKinsey & Company, Harvard Hillel, the Government and Public Policy Club at HBS, The Boston Consulting Group, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University and Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

Opening the conference was former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, who focused on the importance of the US remaining engaged in the Middle East, despite the multitude of vexing and complex challenges in the region. Summers argued that America has a vital stake in the future of this part of the world for a number of reasons, including his belief in the importance of Israel's right to exist as an independent Jewish State, the growing cultural influence of Islam around the globe and world-wide economic concerns about energy.

Former Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers was the opening keynote speaker at the Prosperity for Peace Conference held at Harvard Business School on April 26, 2015. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Although Summers highlighted the positive influence that greater business and economic engagement can have on the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, he adroitly noted that such efforts can only succeed in an environment in which the physical safety of citizens on both sides can be assured. Summers also spoke about the importance of connectivity in bolstering civil society, an idea which may at first seem obvious, but which, in my own experience, is all too often forgotten by civil society actors in their rush to raise funds, steer policy and control how particular issues are covered by the media.

This idea of connection and dialogue is critical to the long-term health of any civil society, and by extension, to the peace process. It serves as a reminder that, as Summers noted, in many ways the relationships (or lack thereof) which underpin the peace talks may play more of a decisive role in the potential success of efforts toward peace than the technical details surrounding the issues themselves.

One of the nice things about the conference was the diverse group of attendees it attracted and the range of speakers who addressed the audience, including Maryam Faghihimani, the daughter of a major religious figure in Iran who talked about what it was like to grow up in an upper-class, religiously conservative family. She told the crowd about the relentless stream of anti-Israel propaganda she was exposed to as a child and young adult, commenting,  "After being exposed to such propaganda, how could one not hate this other country?"  She went on to chronicle how she had experienced her own intellectual awakening as she sought out access to information and ideas from the wider world, including her shock when she discovered during a trip to Lebanon that Iran in fact did support Hezbollah, despite everything she had been told to the contrary. 
Faghihimani closed by reflecting on all of the things she had been able to achieve in her life, telling the audience she is not pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian or pro-regime, but pro-democracy.
Bassam Eid and Joshua Hantman were among the panelists at a discussion on frameworks for cooperation around energy, the environment and the law, at the Prosperity for Peace Conference at Harvard Business School. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

After the opening speakers I wandered over to a panel session looking at Frameworks for cooperation around energy, the environment and the law. The panel of experts for this session was comprised of Professor James K. Sebenius of Harvard Business School, former director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group Bassam Eid, Director of the Business and Environment Department at the Peres Centerfor Peace Edan Raviv, Dr. Tara Shirvani of the World Bank and Joshua Hantman,  Director of Corporate Affairs for Cynergy Investments Ltd.

Raviv talked about the challenges he faces in his work encouraging business cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian companies on a very practical level, from securing financing to understanding tax laws to determining where potential partners can meet in person.  He also touched on the ways in which business collaboration has become more difficult in the last decade, as Israelis and Palestinians have had less and less contact with each other, both at a societal and an individual level.

Bassam Eid offered interesting insights into current concerns in Gaza, including his very negative view of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. He said emphatically that he does not want to be part of a movement to destroy Israel, citing the vital role that Israel plays in providing both employment opportunities and badly-needed supplies to Gaza, touching on the lack of substantive contributions by Arab leaders.

There are several elements which pose a threat to the potential success of events like the one Raviv described, including the lack of media coverage of such efforts in the Palestinian media, a point echoed by Eid, who was also openly critical of Soda Stream's decision to move out of the West Bank, which had the effect of putting hundreds of Palestinian employees out of work.

But all was not doom and gloom - a number of panelists highlighted the intense interest in both sides for greater business collaboration and connection, which I take as a positive sign. The challenge which remains, though, is finding ways to practically connect potential partners, something that Raviv noted the Peres Center was able to do by organizing a major trade show that drew both Israeli and Palestinian participants this past summer.

In an afternoon session at the Prosperity for Peace Conference at Harvard Business School an afternoon session featured a panel of experts discussing the intersection of education, business and co-existence. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Sir Ronald Cohen also addressed the conference,discussing his his belief in the importance of trying to influence the peace process by looking at the conflict through an economic lens, taking into account the relationship between support for extremism and conditions of poverty, as well as the vast potential for economic growth within the Palestinian Territories.  From his remarks it was clear that Sir Ronald believes that the political leadership on both sides represent an impediment to peace, based partly in their own stake in maintaining the status quo. 

He also told the audience that he felt the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was seen as a litmus test within Israel as to what might happen if Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank, and given the outcome of the Gaza withdrawal, Israeli leaders are scared of what might happen if Israel withdrew from the West Bank.  In this, I agree with him - given the results of the Gaza withdrawal, which included the violent political ascendancy of Hamas, rocket attacks on Israel and the tunnels - I don't think too many responsible Israeli leaders would come anywhere close to replicating the same conditions in the West Bank.

"If we can't leave war to generals, then we can't leave peace to politicians," Sir Ronald Cohen noted, making a good argument that in order to achieve peace, forces outside of the political establishment need to play a role in moving the process forward.

Philanthropist and thinker Sir Ronald Cohen discussed ways that building economic ties and encouraging business collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians can contribute to peace at the Prosperity for Peace at Harvard Business School. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

In many ways this was the message I took away from the conference – that in this long-simmering, sometimes explosive, perennially intractable conference, there is not only room, but perhaps a need, for a greater role on the part of civil society actors. I do think there is something to be said for wider participation in the peace process by leaders in business, education and other fields, (on both sides of the conflict) but I’m personally not optimistic that these sectors of society will play a decisive role in the final push to peace. In highlighting the contributions that these groups can make to normalization of relations, the organizers of the conference have drawn attention to the roles that they can play: humanizing the other, encouraging greater historical understanding, creating economic incentives to avoid further armed conflict.

This is important, but unless and until the official representatives of both the Palestinians and the Israelis are able to reach real agreement, civil society actors are more likely to improve the lives of individuals or small groups, as opposed to societies as a whole. This does not mean we should ignore NGO’s and educational institutions and business partnerships that reach across national and cultural divides, indeed, far from it – but perhaps we should see their efforts as vital resources kept in reserve for the day when a political solution is reached. Viewed this way, the work that is being done at the level of civil society has an important symbolic value, representing belief in what’s possible, as well as a practical value, banking goodwill and relationships between Israelis and Palestinians that can lead the way to normalized relations down the road.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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