Building Peace through Entrepreneurship in Israel and Palestine
The past nine months have not been kind to authoritarian governments in the Middle East. Large-scale protests have rocked the regimes of Arab leaders that once appeared untouchable and have sparked a region-wide movement demanding justice for impoverished and disenfranchised populations.
A common thread appears to be woven through the collective heart of these revolutions: economics. The first rumble of what has come to be known as “the Arab Spring” was in response to the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor protesting unfair working conditions in a city wracked by poverty and unemployment. Major demonstrations throughout the Middle East and North Africa ensued, centering around demands for jobs, respectable wages and markets unencumbered by nepotism and corruption. So how does this relate to the troubled peace between Israel and Palestine?
As was widely covered in the international press, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas submitted an application for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations last month. The move came at the end of another year of failed peace talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority and has indefinitely stalled already tenuous attempts to broker a political truce between the two sides.
The argument that, in the absence of complementary political negotiations, businesses could drive peace in the Middle East is a difficult one at best. However, this proposition raises a tantalizing question: could economic ties between Israel and the Palestinian territories create the political capital necessary to establish a sustainable peace between the two sides? Small but inspired groups of Israelis and Palestinians seem to believe so.
This summer at Babson College, 44 business-minded students from Israel and Palestine participated in the groundbreaking new course “Bridging the Cultural Divide Through Entrepreneurship.” The seven-week collaboration targeted an important but underutilized resource for peace: young, socially-motivated entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs were challenged with creating two functional businesses that would launch in Israel and Palestine at the end of the summer. Participants were also faced with the additional and, perhaps, even more demanding task of overcoming deeply held political disagreements that often inhibit productive Israeli-Palestinian ventures.
A similar initiative run by the Fredrich Naumann Center is aimed at bringing together young Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs to promote cross-border business partnerships and explore the role that economics can play in both exacerbating and alleviating local tensions. The Israeli-Palestinian Young Business Leaders Forum also confronts regulatory hurdles that inhibit the growth of small and medium-sized businesses and have been a primary grievance during the recent protests in Israel and Palestine. Although the Forum is relatively small in scale, there were 20 entrepreneurs in the 2010 inaugural class, its model is both promising and replicable.
Questions about the scalability of these initiatives and their capacity to contribute to the broader peace process between the two sides remain. However, in the absence of promising political negotiations, these entrepreneurs are successfully confronting two of the most pressing challenges facing the region today: economics and peace.