Toni Verstandig is Chair of the Aspen Institute Middle East Programs and Senior Vice President at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.
They say that with change comes opportunity. Never has that been more true than in the shifting landscape of the Holy Land. Following Secretary Kerry’s talks between Israel and the Palestinians, it’s clear that discussions have built up a more positive momentum to create change on the political and economic front. The landscape has been evolving, and now Secretary Kerry is seeking to move the parties closer to resolving their differences. Since the beginning of the peace talks at the 1993 Oslo Accords, private citizens in Palestine, Israel, and the United States have believed that peace is possible by building partnerships — business to business and people to people.
The Aspen Institute has served as a convener and connecter between government and business leaders in the United States, Israel, and Palestine since 2005, catalyzing new opportunities for multiple stakeholders to work together to identify solutions to one of the most pressing conflicts in the Middle East. Working in partnership with key players such as former Secretaries of State Madeleine K. Albright and Condoleezza Rice, as well as business leaders such as CEO of Cisco Systems John Chambers and President of the Case Foundation Jean Case, the Institute has redefined the role that partnerships can play in creating systemic change.
In particular, the Institute has nurtured and pushed forward partnerships that have produced tangible deliverables that create the ‘sticky-ness’ needed to make peace work in the long term. Many of these partners have been highlighted in Forbes’ recent article on economic development between Israeli and the Palestinians published in August 2013. This article highlights the importance of the private sector and the relevance it plays in building bridges for peace.
Today, Secretary Kerry not only recognizes the added value of the private sector in supporting the advancement of peace between Palestinians and Israelis, but he is leading a full-scale approach to building new partnerships that will have sustainable impact on the ground. Focusing on creating the economic conditions — as well as political and security conditions — needed to build a long-term solution of an independent Palestinian state is critical to the viability of the peace process. This not only includes attracting big investments, as Secretary Kerry has pointed out, but it also means supporting the next generation of Palestinian and Israeli business leaders and innovative thinkers who will help make peace possible in the 21st century.
The Aspen Institute has launched a series of initiatives that have leveraged the power of the private sector and redefined how public-private partnerships can create opportunities for Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans to work together towards peace. In 2005, the Institute launched the Middle East Investment Initiative (MEII) in partnership with OPIC to create a loan guarantee facility, working with local banks to provide training to loan officers, and increased loans to small businesses in the West Bank. MEII has now become an independent non-profit, closely linked with the Institute, and its impact has been widely felt in the West Bank.
The US-Palestinian Partnership (UPP) was launched in 2007 in partnership with the US Department of State to catalyze public-private partnership to support economic development and youth empowerment in the West Bank and Gaza.
UPP, hosted at the Aspen Institute, was an instrumental tool in facilitating business to business partnerships and fostering stronger relations between the US and the Palestinian private sector. Among our most significant accomplishments was the launch of Sadara Ventures. With the support of UPP co-chair Jean Case, Sadara Ventures, then known as the Middle East Venture Fund, was able to bring on investments from the Skoll Foundation, Cisco Systems, Google, Soros Economic Development Fund, and others.
Following President Obama’s speech in Cairo, we took this results-driven, public-private partnership model to the next level through Partners for a New Beginning. In 2011, we launched ten PNB chapters across the globe including in the Palestinian Territories, as a continuation of our UPP work. PNB continues to bring the efforts of the American private sector including players like the Coca Cola Company, Intel Corporation, Cisco Systems, ExxonMobil, and Morgan Stanley to the fore.
In October 2012, the PNB Secretariat lead an Entrepreneurship Delegation to the Palestinian Territories to connect young Palestinian entrepreneurs with US angel investors and entrepreneurs who provided mentorship, coaching, and seed funding for start-ups. The hallmark event of the trip was the Celebration of Innovation (COI), an annual business competition hosted by the Palestinian PNB local chapter. The COI highlights Palestinian entrepreneurs who present business solutions to problems impacting their local communities. Through PNB we hope to continue to work with Palestinian business leaders to empower these up-and-coming entrepreneurs, connecting them to the tools and resources they need to lead the next generation down the path of peace and stability for which we all strive.
The path to peace is not an easy road. Since I served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs at the US Department of State, we’ve hit several obstacles and roadblocks that seemed impossible to surmount. One thing is certain though, bridges between the US, Israel, and Palestine can be built and they can be strong. We simply need to empower this generation of business leaders and the ones to follow to believe that through partnership and innovative solutions, we can accomplish great things.