2013 Annual Conference:   Overview  |  Banquet  |  Conference  |  Luncheon

Wendy Chamberlin, President of the Middle East Institute: Welcome to all of you. This is going to be a very special luncheon featuring the co-founders of an initiative called “Breaking the Impasse” in which Palestinian and Israeli business and civil society come together to work towards a resolution of conflict and peace. We’re honored to welcome Munib Masri, Chairman of the Palestinian Development and Investment Company, and Yossi Vardi, one of Israel’s leading high-tech entrepreneurs, to discuss the importance of breaking the impasse. They’ll be joined on the panel by Miroslav Dusek, who is Senior Director of the Middle East and North Africa team of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. The World Economic Forum helps sponsor “Breaking the Impasse” and the Middle East Institute is very happy to play its role here too. We’re on a tight schedule. We need to finish the panel by 2:00 so that we can join the third panel of the conference today. But, before I say another word, I want to say again how much I appreciate the support of the lovely Sahouri family who consistently supports this luncheon event at the Middle East Institute’s Annual Conference.

The panel today will be moderated by a member of the Middle East Institute’s Board of Governors, Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer. Dan has the distinction of serving as U.S. Ambassador to both Israel and Egypt. I first met Dan in 1988 when he was one of the key drafters of Secretary Shultz’s peace initiative. He’s played an instrumental role in bringing about the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. In fact, he’s worked most of his 29-year career on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and is regarded in the United States and elsewhere throughout the world as one of the most thoughtful and creative diplomats and experts on the process. Ambassador Kurtzer is currently professor at Princeton University where he has written and edited several books. Now, I think we’re ready to begin. Dan?

Amb. Daniel Kurtzer, MEI Board of Governors: I thank you, Wendy, and thank you all for coming today. In the immortal words of Monty Python, “now for something totally different.” Normally in Washington when you convene a panel with an Israeli and a Palestinian, you’re going to face one of two possibilities: either they’re going to fight with each other and rehash the entire history of the conflict or they will paint such a depressing picture of the conflict that everybody goes home and says, “It can’t be fixed.” What we have today are two extraordinary individuals who have come together in support of the idea that peace is not only do-able but it is imperative. They have devoted considerable attention within their own societies as well as in their interaction with each other to try to make the argument that the current peace process needs to be supported and, particularly, that the efforts of the United States and Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama need to be supported.

The initiative “Breaking the Impasse” was the idea of the World Economic Forum. Miroslav is with us today to talk about that and it’s one of the most creative initiatives that we have seen in the context of so many years of peace efforts. Today we’re going to have a very brief set of introductory comments. I’m going to then moderate a discussion for a few minutes and then open the floor to you. I think you’ll find that this discussion will leave you actually optimistic, at least I hope you do. Why don’t we start, Miroslav, if you could launch us with a little bit of a description of “Breaking the Impasse”?

Miroslav Dusek, World Economic Forum: Ambassador Kurtzer, thank you very much for the kind introduction. Thank you very much to the Middle East Institute for having us and for this fantastic lunch here. Also, thank you, Munib and Yossi, for making the long journey and for your continued commitment. It’s really been a privilege and pleasure working with you.

I’m here on behalf of the World Economic Forum, on behalf of Professor Schwab, the Executive Chairman and Founder of the World Economic Forum. We’ve been really lucky because we’ve seen this community evolve. We’ve been the chaperones of this community since it was launched in 2012. So, of course, Munib and Yossi will be the centerpieces of this discussion but I thought I would share with you a few insights on the evolution of this community, which could help the discussion afterwards.

A few basic facts about the BTI initiative: it was established in 2012 at the World Economic Forum that we held in Istanbul. It has over 300 members. There are leaders, Palestinians, Israelis, international leaders from the Arab world, from the international jury, mainly coming from the private sector but not entirely. They represent major employers in both economies, really big companies, big employers. They also represent a lot of the GDP of the Palestinian and the Israeli economies. I think what should be underscored is that the goal of this community was never to replace governments or to negotiate on behalf of governments but rather to support the official process, support political leaders. We disagree on a lot of things. We would say we disagree on a lot of tactical things but there is a clear strategic alignment around a few issues that I would like to mention here: that the status quo is not only unsustainable over the long term but it’s urgent that that status quo is not there anymore and that a negotiated agreement based on a two-state solution offers the best way to end the conflict, to provide security for both Israelis and Palestinians and, of course, bring enormous socioeconomic dividends for all involved.

Now, the origins of this, very briefly before we go into the main discussion: why I’m mentioning the origins is because it’s very emblematic of what this community is about. What happened in 2012 at the Istanbul summit is that Munib and Yossi jointly, I would say almost intuitively, approached Professor Schwab on the margins of this and said we are at a moment where there are no talks. Nothing is happening. There are a lot of unilateral moves by both sides and also there is the Arab Spring so everything is focusing on the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has already fallen to the back burner of the international agenda and we must do something. So, it was a very intuitive thing and it was going against the conventional thinking of the time. It was, in a way, very avant-garde. That was one thing.

The other thing which was very interesting about the evolution is it was very bottom-up so there was no prior coordination with any of the governments involved. This was a spontaneous approach and only after, of course, there is a connection with the official process but this is a very bottom-up process. What we did in a nutshell, we responded to the appeal and we held, first, private meetings in Geneva, then in Davos, and we built up the community. From an initial group of ten to twelve people in Istanbul we grew to 30 people. We tested the waters for whether this is only a naive group of people that think things can be done and quickly realized that there is a substantial mainstream constituency for peace within Palestine and Israel that wants to work together.

A critical moment came this past Spring at the World Economic Forum at the Dead Sea in Jordan where for the first time this community, at that time already having over 300 members, publicly came out together with Secretary Kerry, President Perez, and President Abbas and made an appeal to the international community to go back to negotiations. So, you may argue what role did this community actually play in defreezing and relaunching the talks which happened this past summer, but we definitely played a role. There was one moment, of course, you could say ok this is all about “Breaking the Impasse” and going back to the negotiating table so now everything is done and we can go home. But I think we realized very soon after the relaunch of negotiations that the critical part is still facing us, that we need to support the political leaders for what, arguably, will be the toughest job to arriving at a solution. This is what is guiding us right now and I think it will be a part of our discussion today but I just felt I should share with you the evolution of this community as it has developed so far.

Kurtzer: Thank you very much. I suggest all of you take a look at the bios of these three extraordinary people. I’m not going to repeat them but you’ll now have a chance to hear from Munib for some introductory remarks.

Munib Masri, PADICO Holding: I want to stand up because I have a little bit of an ache in the back, coming across the Atlantic. Good afternoon, everybody. I am really honored and touched by such a group. I want to thank Wendy and Kate and, of course, Daniel, for this place and for their Institute who’s catering for us to meet today.

Washington, to ask Yossi and I, is a very important place because still America is the leader of the world and we hope that the leader of the world would participate with Yossi and, of course, the WEF (World Economic Forum) and myself to bring about a peaceful settlement for this conflict that has been bothering us for the last sixty-five years.

Over the last forty years, I’ve been working for this moment and the moment is coming. I think we have a crucial six months. Three months has gone. We have still six months. I think the difference in this time of solving the problem is I think the administration and Secretary Kerry have put their minds together to say for the parties that we need to come to an agreement.

Over the many months we have worked together, over the years that I have known Yossi Vardi, he’s a man of honor. He’s close to my heart. He has done a lot for his community and I think he and I want, before we die, we want to see this subject settled. We want to see a better future for our grandchildren and for the world. I think we’re saying this from the deep commitment that we have to the cause and we look at you as people who can support us. I’m going to give you a chance to, of course, ask the questions but we are in a very unique time, very opportune time. The players are excellent and I think the people, the administration, and the foreign ministry are really great. Then we have the WEF, of course, who has all the credibility in the world that we can do something.

I think, I hope, this will be a jumping step towards going to Davos. I feel there is something in the air. I think if all our efforts are put to tell Mr. Kerry and Mr. President, “we are behind you, go ahead and do the deal,” and the whole world will be satisfied with it. I think the region is standing on top of a volcano. The volcano is simmering and we need a lot of wisdom to stop this volcano, to stop this catastrophe, which is coming if we stay away, stay as strangers, and with what’s going on.

I hope today we’ll answer all your questions. I’m optimistic to find a solution, a solution that will be a win-win-win for the world, win for everybody who cares about the region and a win-win for Israel. We are committed to the two-state solution, viable solution, viable states that we are comfortable with, that it will fulfill our aspiration, the aspiration of the Israelis because Yossi and I, we feel that we are committed, we feel that we are destined to live together and we want our grandchildren to live together. We want to have a vibrant Palestinian state living side by side in harmony and peace with Israel. I would like to see Israel to be the first state to support the creation of a viable Palestinian state because when you are a neighbor you always desire that this neighbor is as happy as you are. We want to be as happy as the Israelis. We want to be as prosperous as the Israelis because we share a lot of values with them. I will stop here and we hope that we could answer all your questions.

Again, I’m honored to be here. I’m honored to see my brother Abdlatif Al-Hamad. My family is here. I brought my grandchildren to be witness to this and to be a part of the legacy. I have Munib Junior with me here. He will say that he wants to turn the page and he wants to have a good relation with his new neighbors - good neighbors. That we can contribute to the world a lot. We want to go together to the whole Arab and Islamic world to say we can help and we can do something. We want Israel to be loved and not to be boycotted. It’s up to Israel. I hope they will do it. I hope they will become part of the region. This is a huge ocean - Islamic ocean - Arab ocean. They have to say, “we are part of it and we want to work for the welfare for the goodness of this state.” With their technology and know-how, I think we can do a lot together. I think the bonus is great for the Israelis to have peace in the region. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

Kurtzer: I’ve had the privilege of knowing both Munib and Yossi for probably thirty years and Munib just ruined my next line because I was going to say we were teenagers at the time we met but since he brought his grandchildren here, I can’t really say that. (Laughter.) Yossi?

Yossi Vardi, High-tech investor and entrepreneur: Okay, I prepared some lines but I must start with some personal reflections which kind of flooded me when the cab approached this hotel not far from here. There is the Madison Hotel, I think a few blocks, five blocks on 15th St. and in October 1978 I spent six weeks at the Madison Hotel. We were a group of Israelis in the middle. The Americans were probably eavesdropping on both us and the Egyptians and under us there were the Egyptians in what was called the Blair House negotiations, which were the specific negotiations following the Camp David Accord. At that time I was a young executive in the government and my role was to, Munib hates when I say, give back the oil field in the Suez - he tells me you cannot give back something which is not yours (laughter) - so we argue about the terms. It was not an easy…

Masri: This a true story by the way.

Vardi: … decision at that time. It was the height of the second oil crisis. In the ground there were one billion barrels of oil and at that time, the Shah of Iran left to Contadora and we were negotiating with the Egyptians. Our chief of staff when Sadat came to the Israeli Parliament on the 2 November 1977 says, “This is a trap. Be careful this is a trap.” In spite of the doubts and we had to give back the Sinai – and, again, excuse me for the give back (laughter) - but we had to give back the Sinai. Tough decisions. Tough decisions.

Nevertheless under the leadership of Begin - not somebody from the left, Menachem Begin from the right - an agreement was executed and since then at the border of Egypt and Israel not a single boy was killed. Not Egyptian and not Israeli. This was thirty-five years ago. Not a single boy. Not a single mother have to shed tears for a son who was killed and there’s many Israelis and many Palestinians. I think there is not a single family in this region which was saved from this horrifying experience of losing somebody for what?

Then, in November 1995 to February 1996, I spent four months in this very hotel. At that time I was already a businessman but I was asked to join the negotiations with the Syrians, what was known as the Wye Plantation but the back office was in this hotel. We spent four months trying to negotiate a peace agreement with the Syrians. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen and I really pray that the day will come not far from today that we will be able to complete the job.

Now, many people ask me, “Are you really optimistic that there will be peace with the Palestinians?” and I’m saying it’s not a question of if we’re optimistic or not. We are doomed. We have to work on it whether we are optimistic or not optimistic. I’m optimistic because I got to know the Egyptians and the Palestinians and the Jordanians and the Syrians and I know very well in my heart that 95% of all decent people in the region, never mind what is their ethnic background, really want to get an end. Now, there are different versions of what kind of end but parameters are **inaudible** some solution which will provide justice and respect and dignity and future and security and well being and a good future to all the people of the region should be found and I believe it can be found.

Now, I want to tell you one word about the Israeli BTI-ers. Well, BTI strangely enough is non-sectarian group of 183 people right now and it keeps growing every day. People from the right and from the left. Religious and non-religious. It’s not a monolithic group of hallucinating people from the left. (Laughter.) It’s a wide - and it’s important that you will note and Munib will testify to it - a wide spectrum of decent people that believe that in spite of differences of opinion, we should get to an end of this conflict. We should create two states for the two people. On their behalf, I’m coming here today - that this group of people consists of the leading business people, of the most influential business organizations in Israel who decided that enough is enough and screwed up - in order to express their voice and their commitment to support the process, to advocate the process, and not to be any more the silent majority.

Both in the Palestinian community and the Israeli community about 70-80% of the people would like to have a two-state solution. I admit that there are different versions of the vision of what the two states should be and Munib’s version is not probably my version. We didn’t compare it and I tell you why we didn’t compare it: because we came to the conclusion that it is the role of the leaders to forge the agreement. They will have to negotiate. They will have to do painful concessions to each other and in the last ten years on the Israeli side, 17 peace programs have been submitted and all of them went into - I don’t know where. We came to the conclusion that in order to be effective and productive we should support the leaders in their efforts.

The last thing in the component is the role of the United States. I traveled this morning from Tel Aviv to talk to you and at 6:00, I travel back to Tel Aviv. It’s 19 hours each direction and my main reason - other than that Dan Kurtzer told me that I should come so I said, “okay, I come” and I know there will be chicken in the lunch because I had many lunches in the United States. (Laughter.) It was not too bad I must tell you - I came to tell you that the role of the Americans is critical. It was critical with the Egyptian negotiations. It was critical with the Jordanian negotiations and there is no room for cynicism. It’s perfectly all right to be doubtful. It’s perfectly all right to put a lot of question marks. It’s perfectly all right to say, “we have to see what happens,” but we have to work and nobody is allowed or has the right to be cynical because these things are very, very important. They are greater than all of us. This will determine the future of peace in the region which is torn by blood and hatred and fights and conflicts all over the place for too many years, for too many generations. We need your active support to help in this process.

I would like also to say one thing. In the beginning when we compared the narratives, let me tell you, maybe you are not aware of this but the Israeli narrative is not like the Palestinian narrative. It’s two different ways to look on the situation. Each one can point fingers. Each one has a lot of grievance and a lot of hardship, etc. with the other side and we can spend our time to decide what is the reason, what are the histories, etc. What we decided that while not giving away the narrative, not giving away the grievance, we are trying to focus on the joint future of the region, which is the most constructive and most important thing to be done. We are a group of 300 people. We are not willing to take the current situation as a given. We think it can be changed. We think the interests will change it across any political or sectarian or ethnic or religious belief or persuasion. We think the two leaders are capable to do it and we should give them our unconditional support. There will be a lot of discussions if the negotiations reach an agreement. There will be a lot of debate and we are committed to supporting the leaders until a two-state solution will be achieved and I personally am sure that we will achieve a two-state solution because the current situation is utterly not right, not acceptable, harmful, not humane, and cannot continue. (Applause.)

Masri: Thank you, Yossi. I want to just address you. Please today, the Washington people, you’re usually polite, you don’t ask questions. Please ask as much questions as you want so that we can be all together in this. We came here to be part of solving this conflict and we think Washington is a very important place so please be with us so that we will know your mind. Don’t be too polite - not to ask questions. Ask the hard questions and you can hear what is the stand of BTI, we’ll tell you, and each one what we think that should be done but I hope that we come up completely satisfied to really say we want to support the leaders as Yossi said but more so to have the constituency bigger to support John Kerry and the administration. Thank you.

Kurtzer: Before we get to the questions from the audience, let me dig down a little bit into what you both said. As I understand it, your role as you see it is to impress upon your respective leaderships the importance of making peace. Without revealing secrets, what is it that you tell President Abbas, Prime Minister Netanyahu that may help move them when they’re dealing with hard substantive issues - Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, you name it? What is it that you can say to them other than the fact that you support peace? Munib?

Masri: Good question. I think what I say to Mr. Abbas... I think let me just say the background. In 1994, I was sitting with late President Arafat in Tunis. I didn’t like Oslo. I was shouting. He was shouting and then finally he said, “Sit down.” So I sat down. He was older than me so I have to obey him and he said “Munib, we were in Jordan. We made the Jordanians mad. We went to Lebanon. We made the Lebanese mad. I think we learned what we want to do. I want to take the hardest decision and to say I want to make peace and this peace is by going home and by saying that, from what I see, is what the claims we say have 100%. No we want to say what is the 1967 border looks like. Gaza and West Bank connected and Jerusalem.” At that time we didn’t have the Arab Peace Initiative but he convinced me that we have to take this hard decision. We have to take this tough thing because we want to go home and he said I don’t want to have army. I don’t want to have anything. I want to give all the feelings of security to the Israelis and he was telling this in 1988 when I was with Dan Abraham and he told him, “Look Danny. No Army, no nothing. We want to enjoy life. Finished. We have this whether we are one nation or we are cousins.”

So, the most important thing is that he had the will. It was a good feeling that we buried the blames, the bad feelings, we want to start a new page. And, I think, this time Mr. Abbas is committed. The Palestinian leadership is committed. We have the Ambassador here, he could tell me I’m wrong. They are committed to a very strong peace to live with the Israelis and to be part of the region. Khalas. Finished. We want to contribute together. We want to live together. We want to do things together and we want to love each other as much as we can to bring this thing. So, from the Palestinian side, I assure you they have all the willingness to continue to do this thing, to continue what Oslo set forth. Now, there’s some things they need to do and I agree with Yossi is they have to negotiate and I hope it’s a win-win situation.

America. We have to include America because we need a fair partner who we could trust and I think America is very well trusted in Israel  - much more trusted than on the Palestinian side. This time I think Mr. Kerry really means business and Mr. Obama means business. Europe means business and we need you to help us to push to encourage the American leadership to make this step. I always encourage our people to make it because it’s a must, as Yossi was saying, it’s a must. We need to live together, finished. I feel bad for the mothers. One of the mothers sitting here, my daughter-in-law, she has a son who is 22 and was shot and he’s in a wheelchair but he’s here to say, “I want to live. I want to live with the Israelis. I want to have a better future. I want to have this.” Let’s do it. I’m sure on the Israeli side you have also casualties, bad things. We want to finish this chapter and I think Yossi and I with the help of you and the help of the WEF and we have an opportunity which we should not miss. This is the opportunity and please be vocal and let’s do it together. Let’s tango together. It’s very, very important this time. We have a crucial six months. In six months we could do a lot. Let’s do it.

Kurtzer: Yossi, what do you say to the Prime Minister that you think can make an impression upon him?

Vardi: First of all, Dan, you shouldn’t underestimate Bibi Netanyahu. He’s a very smart gentleman, graduate of one of your best institutions and I don’t have to tell him what are the benefits of peace. He knows it very well and like every Israeli he’s torn between the yearn for peace - I don’t think there is a single Israeli who doesn’t want peace or maybe very few really - and the security considerations. He has a big responsibility on his shoulders. And, as I told you, and I’m not saying it as a spokesman of Netanyahu because I’m not, I have no doubt in my mind after I met him in recent times, that he really wants to repeat what Begin has done. It was shown two days ago by the freeze he put on the settlements.

What we tell him? We tell him that a group of 180 of the business leaders of the country are willing to stand up - which is not very common within the Israeli business community. It was even less common when Munib and I spoke when the whole peace issue was kind of on the back burner - and we told him we are not going to be silent. We are going to support the process. We are going to take as active a role as possible. And, the benefit of it? Everybody knows the benefit of it. The benefits are the fact that we are business people doesn’t mean that we see only the economic benefits. There are moral benefits. There are benefits to the young generation. There are benefits to the whole regional construction, benefits to the standing of Israel in the world - all benefits are really known. The only question is if Abu Mazen and Netanyahu will hit it right like Begin and Sadat or Rabin and Arafat or even Rabin and King Hussein. You know it was done in the past.

This one is more complicated because this time it’s not two different territories but it’s the same thing. Many of us believe that especially a leader that’s from the right will be able to do it. My feeling, again I am not spokesman for Netanyahu and I don’t know any information that you people don’t know, but my feeling is that if he’s satisfied with the security issues and again, I don’t want to go and repeat the whole thing that all of us know. He has some reasons to be cautious, let’s put it this way, but I hope he will be able to pull it together. All of us, all of the group, hope also.

If you allow me to add one thing to what Miroslav said about the role of the WEF, why I think the role of the WEF is so critical. Miroslav started with 2012 but as we remember actually the World Economic Forum started the MENA process, the Casablanca meeting which was really the watershed in the whole way of how the region perceived itself. To those who don’t know, they created four major meetings of Israeli and regional business leaders and politicians in 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997. It started lots of processes. Some processes continued. Many processes were halted but the whole thing was changed and I know that this initiative that Munib and I are involved together with many of our friends is changing again the narrative. You know strangely enough when we meet what you get is the feeling of joint sorrow, not a feeling of hatred or finger pointing, etc. As I said, Munib has a big book of all the things which he can complain about and be bitter about and we have also a book but we said we put the book on the side because it’s not going to resolve anything right now. Let’s see how we create a better future for our kids, for our grandsons, for the region.

Kurtzer: Miroslav, what would you think the next immediate steps are? Obviously, there’s an idea of attracting as many business people from the two communities and from abroad. What would you think the next steps are to advance this initiative?

Dusek: Sure. So this one is critically important, enlarging the constituency for peace at a time which is even more critical than it was last spring is important. We are working with both Yossi and Munib to make sure that we add quality people but we grow the community.

Also, mainstreaming. We are working in Israel and Palestine. We are working with a lot of people to make sure that - you may know, there is a communication vacuum right now around the negotiations. This is something that was self-imposed by the negotiators to give them comfort and calm to negotiate. That is of course being used by a lot of people that are skeptical. So there is no communication from the official side but there are a lot of people that are saying, “We have seen this before. This is going to fail.” So, also this group is working in Israel and Palestine to make sure that we put out some of the thoughts that you have heard into the mainstream media - not only there but also in the United States increasingly. The public messaging thing is very important. Of course, it’s also leading up to what the World Economic Forum does, which is the Davos meeting at the end of January, so it’s connected.

I think the most important thing is building trust. I think it should be said here that we have new members coming in and the new members need to build trust with the ones that have been there for some time. If we can be a bridge also to bridge that trust gap that may exist there or build trust among the political leaders in what we call private diplomacy. This is extremely important. As you touched upon it, Dan, in your question before but that’s something that is also ongoing on the ground but also here to make sure that if there are any misunderstandings, that this group - I think it’s one of the best groups because it’s people that are trusted by the political leaders and -if there are any tough messages that need to be delivered or any tough clarity that needs to be shed on certain things, it’s best done by people that you trust. This is something that this group is working on right now.

Kurtzer: Why don’t we take up Munib on his challenge to you to ask tough questions? We have about 15 minutes. If you’re on this side of the room, it’s going to be challenging for me because I can’t see you but I’ll try to find you, ok?  Let’s do number one and then number two.

Question: Hi. My name is Ann Rutherford and I’ve been to many different seminars on the subject. I’ve heard one person tell me that 95% of Israelis are not aware of the Arab Peace Initiative and they had no reason to want to know it because they were all happy now that they don’t have bombs going off in their homeland. Are you going to do any more advertising or really getting to the citizens for your peace initiative?

Kurtzer: Yossi, maybe you can take that. How do you tell the Israeli people that this is happening and that there is an Arab partner both here and in general?

Vardi: To qualify the number, the recent polls show that between 70-80% of the people of Israel want right now a two-state solution. I say that 95% of people don’t want wars and these sorts of things. How are we going to explain to the people about this initiative? Our role to explain will come when the parameters of an agreement will be announced. Right now we work more on quiet advocacy. We didn’t go yet to the public but we may do it in a later stage depending on how the negotiations are rolling out.

Question: I have a comment for Yossi and Munib.

Kurtzer: Keep the comments very, very brief.

Question: Sure. I admire your optimism since Oslo. Munib, you kept saying Washington, Washington. America is more than Washington. It’s Nebraska. It’s New Hampshire so if you’re going to stick to Washington, you will not go very far. My question to Yossi and you and I talked about this earlier. Prime Minister Netanyahu said a few days ago that the Palestinians need a Ben-Gurion and the Palestinians responded by saying the Israelis need a de Gaulle. Is it possible that Prime Minister Netanyahu could become the de Gaulle of Israel?

Vardi: We discussed it in the corridor and I told you we saw that Begin became the de Gaulle of the Egyptian agreement. Ariel Sharon left Gaza, you may argue if it was in the right way or not, or the Palestinians like it or not, but the fact is he was willing to give it away. These leaders can rise to the situation and I told you that personally you can bite or not. Again, I‘m not here doing propaganda for the government. I’m convinced Netanyahu would like to do peace. He’s acting like this, etc. So I don’t see any reason. I don’t want Netanyahu to be de Gaulle. I want Netanyahu to be Netanyahu who brings peace to Israel and I’m quite certain he can do it.

Kurtzer: The Ambassador for the Arab League.

Question: Thank you, Ambassador Kurtzer. I have a problem with standing and my brother Munib has a problem sitting. (Laughter.)

As you know that peace initiative, the peace negotiations are stalled now and the Palestinian delegation, I think, resigned or withdrew and they are looking for another delegation team to replace them so it’s really complicated now. Perhaps now I came to the conclusion that this is not the right time. That the Arab League, which I represented, I attended part of the delegation here and the Palestinians shouldn’t have gotten into a peace negotiation in this turmoil and chaos in our region with countries that are very important, who can affect the peace or war in the region like Egypt, like Iraq, like Syria and Lebanon.  Also, Israel feels for the first time - and this is not said myself. This was quoted by many Israeli leaders and ministers who are here and there - that Israel feels in more than sixty years more secure than any other time. So I think that’s why this weakened the whole thing, the whole process of peace.

Also Mr. Yossi said that the two leaders - I think he means Abbas and Netanyahu - can solve the problem. No. There is only one leader who can solve the problem and he is the President of the United States who was not directly involved in the negotiations which is too bad. This peace initiative needs a president of the United States to intervene because the United States is the one committed to the security of Israel, is the one who said that they will keep Israel at any time, at any cost, stronger than all the Arab countries combined. So why should we go to any other leader? Do you want me to continue also that the demands of Netanyahu…

Kurtzer: Question, if we can?

Question: Ok, yeah, It’s really also touches on all the main issues - none of them has touched on the problems involved. Netanyahu has put demands, which are really unacceptable to any Palestinian or Arab or a peace-loving nation anywhere in the world, like for example, no return to the 1967 borders because they are indefensible and he wants to maintain military presence on its borders with the Valley of Jordan. No return to the refugees of the Palestinians, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Palestinians expelled in 1948. And, also that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel and I can go on and on and on and say many reasons. So how can we have peace, a two-state solution with what’s going on?

Kurtzer: Ok. Thank you.

Masri: I could respond. Gentleman, let’s look at the thing. We have a very difficult time. We have a difficult task and we want all of us to support what we want to do. Three cases I’ll tell you what happened and that keep me optimistic.

A telephone call that a very great lady called Rita Hauser arranged for me and Mr. Rabin in 1985, 1986, before Oslo. He was calling from New York. I was in London. He called me and we talked for a while and I told him I would like to arrange a meeting between you and our late President Arafat. He said no, he would never do it. His hands are bloody. I told him “Look, Mr. Rabin, no matter what you say, even if you bring Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, nobody can make peace with the Palestinians or the Palestinians will listen to except Arafat.” Well, there goes this and then Yossi and I, we met in Casablanca where I saw the two coming to meet after shaking hands. It was impossible but it was done. I mean, it depends on the occasion and the people. I think Rabin shook the hands of Arafat. Arafat shook the hands of Rabin on the Rose Garden of the White House. Number one.

Number two. We have President Sadat came to Tel Aviv and he did something. I was in Beirut and I really cried when I saw it. The whole psychological barrier - the hatred and other things - gone and I was a freed man to see that it could be done.

Thirdly, we were talking to, I don’t know how confidential it is but I’m going to tell you, we were sitting with Mr. Shimon Peres in his residence and one of the BTI said, “It might take five years to do this.” Shimon Peres said, “No. I tell you a story. I get a call from Mr. Sharon he said he’s coming to see me and he asked if”...what’s his wife’s name?

Audience: Leah

Masri: He said, “Is she still a good cook?” Sharon’s asking Mr. Peres. He told him yes. So he came. He sat with them and he knew he had something and wanted to say something to Shimon Peres. He told him, “Shimon, I did it in Gaza in fifteen or twenty minutes and I will do it in the West Bank. So it’s not going to take fifteen years or five years.” So if there’s a will, if there’s determination, it can be done. I think we were present, all of us, we were present when we heard this.

I mean, let’s say, “let’s do it.” Let’s not look back. We have so many things to look back at but I think it’s time now to open a new page and say with you, with everybody, I think we can make it and I’m sure that Yossi and I and WEF are working so hard that we need your support to continue this because we have no interest, no personal interest, no economic interest, no economic cooperation except after the independence of Palestine. We will do business together. We’ll do things together. We’ll tango together again. So, it’s something that we need to do. There is a light in the tunnel. There is six months. There is the administration. There is Kerry and there is us, all of us. We can do it and make sure that it could be done. It’s not the most difficult thing. It’s difficult but if there is a will, there is a way. And, we have the will to do it and we need your will to do it. Thank you.

Vardi: I’d like to add another quote of Shimon Peres. He has great quotes. He says, “Two things are done better in the dark. The second one is peacemaking.” (Laughter.) This is what he always says so I said in the beginning that the narratives are very far away. The way that the Palestinians see what the peace should provide and what the Israelis should provide are two different things. Now the art of negotiations is to find creative solutions to these differences. We saw it in the past. We saw that Olmert and Abu Mazen and Barak, they closed a lot of the gaps. So, I think that what we have to do, we have to try and to provide them the assurance that the people want it. They have to know that the people want it. If we raise our hands and we say the gap is too far, then nothing will come out. This is why this meeting and why first of all the involvement of Kerry is so important and the most important thing is that these two guys will continue to talk because I can tell you one thing: if they don’t talk, there will be no peace. You have to be cautious. Of course, you have to be cautious. Even Kurtzer, you know, in spite of the fact that Munib and I are good friends, he took very careful thinking to put Miroslav between us. (Laughter.)

Kurtzer: I think we have time for one more question, unfortunately, because I’m sure we could stay for a while.

Masri: We have two.

Kurtzer: Let’s take these two questions and hopefully, they’ll be short questions.

Question: Ian Shapiro from Yale University. Nobody has mentioned Hamas and I would be interested in how both speakers see them fitting into the equation.

Kurtzer: Ok, Hamas. And the other question, back here. Sir?

Question: H.P. Goldfield from Albright Stonebridge Group, Hogan Lovells, and the Board of the Middle East Institute. Against the backdrop of BTI and the business leaders you’ve assembled, against the backdrop of Secretary Kerry’s economic development plan of 4 billion dollars, how important is immediate job creation to creating the environment for a sustainable peace or does it have to await peace for it occur?


Kurtzer: Or I can say geez, too bad… let’s do job creation first.

Vardi: First of all, as far as the BTI is concerned, whatever we touch upon economic issues, if at all, it is, the Israeli side, is after a peace agreement because the Palestinians made it very clear to us that right now they’re not interested to do anything which might be perceived as normalization.

But I would like to provide you with a personal testimony if I can. I am very much involved in the IT industry. I met quite a big number of young Palestinian guys in the IT industry and I can tell you they are as capable as anybody else and a little bit more motivated. All of us remember the work that the Palestinians have done in the Gulf in the 70s. This is a hard-working community, sophisticated, given the right condition, given I think the now how many universities you have in the Palestinian area, Munib? Seven? Anthony, how many universities?

Audience: Seven.

Vardi: Seven universities. So, I think that the potential is there. Again ,this is not the role of the Israelis and between the Palestinians and the international community I’m sure this can be done and should be done. For sure, if there would be less conflict, everybody will benefit. We know it also from the experience not on IT but from the experience where Palestinians worked in Israel, they were very sought-after workers. I can go into personal stories but I don’t want to. They’re people with talent. They’re hard workers, motivated, so why not?

Also, I must tell that two days I was in Palestine. I was in Rawabi and in Ramallah. You see not only the rate of construction and the number of the cranes but the quality of construction and the beauty of the building. It’s quite amazing. Maybe Munib you shouldn’t do peace so fast. Maybe it will walk away after the peace. This was a bad joke. (Laughter.)  Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose.

Masri: I see one of my granddaughters. She’s lifting her hand. She wants to talk.

Audience: She didn’t know that she was lifting her hand but now she talks.

Masri: No, she was hesitating.

Question: I wanted to ask a question before the end. My name is Zaha and I just wanted to thank you for coming and speaking here. This is a great initiative especially because it’s great to see you guys talking about how you have hope for this initiative to work especially because you are an example for the younger generations after you’ve had all of your experiences in the conflict. You show the younger generation that after everything you’ve been through you’re still trusting. You still have hope and that gives us hope and that gives us a reason to step in and redesign systems and want to collaborate together. It’s true because recently we’ve had more interactions with Israelis. We’re having more interactions with Palestinians and they want to see things happen and you are in a place where you can make things happen.

So, I wanted to thank you but the question I wanted to ask was: what type of future do you see if this initiative works and if Kerry and Obama make it happen, if Israel and Palestine make it happen? What do you want to see in the future generations of Israel and Palestine? How do you want to see them collaborate and do you think they will rise as a power together and form another image for the world that people will look up to and want to imitate?

Vardi: I, honest to God, I’m not saying it just to satisfy you, honest to God, I was with 22 of my friends on Wednesday. We toured Ramallah and Rawabi and I’m sure and my friends are sure if we have peace and these two communities can collaborate - each one minding its own business, each one running its own state - then the possibilities to work together are so immense and the people are so motivated and talented that I am sure that this will act as an example to other communities in the region. Given that there will be a peace, I’m extremely optimistic and I want to thank you very much for what you said. I just would like to warn you of one thing. You can learn from Munib and me many things but don’t be as stubborn as the two of us. (Laughter.)


Masri: I want to say something that last time I saw our President Abu Mazen he told me, “Munib, make sure to tell everybody that I’m very much committed. I want to do it.” And he has his parameters; he has his things to do it. He said Arafat had said if the stage and I’m going to continue the way that he’s doing. I just want to assure you that he’s doing everything he can to come to a conclusion. He wants to come to a happy ending. He wants to really, really make Mr. Netanyahu, to give him the courage of Rabin to say, “Let’s do it. Let’s tango.”

Kurtzer: Before Wendy thanks the panel, I want to, in my professorial hat, give you homework because it is critical in this Washington setting for our administration to know what’s happened here today, for John Kerry to understand that what he participated in nine months ago was not a one-time endeavor but these two gentlemen and their cohort are working day-to-day to try to make this happen. So, please spread the word of what you’ve heard today. If you’re representing a foreign government or even the Arab League, please tell your host governments that this is an important and critical initiative which deserves all of our support. Thank you so much.


Masri: I have a conversation with the Arab League later and I’m glad that the representative is here and he said we still have the Arab Peace Initiative on the table. Please, Israel, look at it again. Let’s see where the Arab world and the Islamic world could cooperate, this is my personal thing, and I hope Israel will take it very seriously again. That’s the message from the Arab League: to say this message or this initiative is something that it cannot be ignored. I hope, hope from the bottom of my heart, that the Israelis, because it answers many, many, many questions, I hope the Israelis will look at it very seriously and see how to engage with the Arab and Islamic world.

Chamberlin: I want to thank you all very, very much for an inspiring and optimistic panel. Let’s hope that next year we will not have to have this kind of a discussion because it’ll be done. Thank you very, very much.


2013 Annual Conference:   Overview  |  Banquet  |  Conference  |  Luncheon

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