May 23, 2013 11:39 am

Israeli and Palestinian executives in Mideast peace initiative

Israeli and Palestinian business leaders have been quietly holding talks over the past year, with the aim of pushing their respective governments to agree a two-state solution that would see an independent Palestinian state created.

The initiative, organised by the World Economic Forum, is called Breaking the Impasse. The business people involved, about 300 in all, are drafting a joint appeal to their leaders, to be presented at the weekend at the WEF’s regional meeting at the Dead Sea in Jordan, according to two people close to the situation.

The group includes some of Israel’s best-known chief executives and family owners of listed and unlisted companies, alongside leading Palestinian business people. Munib al-Masri, the Nablus-based West Bank billionaire, has been heading the effort on the Palestinian side.

The initiative was launched at last year’s WEF Middle East and north Africa conference in Istanbul, and leading members of the group have held several meetings in the region and Europe since.

Israeli and Palestinian business people have launched joint projects and exchanges on a small scale before, but this would be perhaps the first time that they will have joined forces in a broad-based effort to urge their leaders to make peace.

“It has nothing to do with economic co-operation or joint projects,” one of the people briefed on the talks said. “It has to do with the status quo and the lack of progress politically and the danger of the impasse going on forever.”

He added: “It’s really out of concern – it’s a group that is concerned and feels responsible.”

Participants in the talks have been sworn to secrecy because of the sensitivities on both sides. Many CEOs and family owners in Tel Aviv’s business elite are left-leaning and favour peace with the Palestinians, but most have steered clear of taking public political stances.

On the Palestinian side, Mr Al-Masri was branded a collaborator by activists after meeting last year with Rami Levy, an Israeli businessman whose supermarket chain has outlets in the occupied West Bank. According to one of the people briefed on the talks, that meeting was part of the initiative to be unveiled this weekend.

The WEF declined to comment, and Mr Al-Masri was not immediately available for comment.

It has nothing to do with economic co-operation or joint projects. It has to do with the status quo and the lack of progress politically and the danger of the impasse going on forever

News of the talks comes as John Kerry, US secretary of state, arrives in the region for his latest round of diplomacy aimed at verifying whether peace talks can be restarted between Israel’s government and the Palestinian Authority.

Mr Kerry is due on Thursday to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and justice minister Tzipi Livni, who will head any renewed peace talks. Mr Kerry is also due to attend the WEF conference in Jordan on Sunday, as is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, will also arrive on Thursday to meet Israeli and Palestinian officials in a trip Britain said this week “underlines the UK’s commitment to the Middle East peace process”.

Israeli media have reported that Mr Kerry will decide by mid-June whether grounds exist to resume peace talks.

Scepticism is running high among both Israelis and Palestinians that he will succeed. Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper on Tuesday quoted Tal Becker, an adviser to Ms Livni, saying that officials in the PA’s ruling Fatah movement opposed a resumption of talks, as did the Palestinian “street”.

Mr Kerry’s efforts to revive the peace process have included proposals for joint Israeli-Palestinian economic initiatives. On a visit to the region last month, Mr Kerry said he had discussed with Israel and the Palestinian Authority measures that would remove “bottlenecks and barriers” to commerce in the West Bank.

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