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Palestinians in Suits
Palestinian industrialist Zahi Khouri (r)
by Judy Lash Balint
November 16, 2005

One day before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice managed to hammer out an uneasy agreement on border arrangements in the Gaza Strip, James Wolfensohn, Quartet special envoy to the Middle East, told a Jerusalem meeting of Palestinians and Israelis exactly what he thought of them.

Addressing several hundred people convened by the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and the Issam Sartawi Center for Peace and Democracy Studies, Wolfensohn who has spent the last five months in the area trying to forge agreement on things like how to link Gaza and the West Bank and who will haul away the rubble from the demolished Jewish homes of Gush Katif, said he believes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "a sideshow in terms of global politics." Despite the disproportionate attention given to the area, in terms of the money and numbers of people involved, we're small potatoes, Wolfensohn said. "This is a sideshow."

Heavily represented in the audience for Wolfensohn's Jerusalem talk were the professional peaceniks who might in fact not know what to do with themselves if the sideshow came to an end and solutions were found to the Arab conflict with Israel. Galia Golan of Peace Now, Gila Svirsky of the Coalition of Women for Peace, Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom and Gershon Baskin representing the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information were all present and eager to ask questions. No representative of any Israeli right-wing group was there.

The former World Bank chairman reckons he has traveled to at least 130 countries, but says he's never seen anything like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was charged with resolving just six key issues regarding free passage in and out of Gaza, and has spent twenty weeks trying to do it. "It's difficult to understand how we haven't made more progress," he says. "Maybe there was something like this in ancient times," he declares and then adds pointedly, "But I think you're all proud of it."

No�we're not proud of it, but maybe Wolfensohn is just experiencing a different reality. For Wolfensohn and another American visitor to the area this week, Bill Clinton, the issues seem quite simple. If only we can provide funds and a boost to the Palestinian state idea through freedom of movement for goods and people, all our troubles will be over. Wolfensohn noted that, "People who have hope don't blow themselves up," and Clinton regurgitated the same message to different audiences during his visit here.

According to the two prominent Americans, hope can be provided not only by an influx of more of the world's money into the Palestine Authority, but also by opening up Gaza and the West Bank. Israel is expected to open its borders, remove 125 checkpoints in the West Bank and allow access into Gaza from Egypt�a traditional route for smuggling arms and terrorists.

Not a word was mentioned during the briefing about transparency or accountability for the more than $4 billion already funneled into the black hole of the Palestine Authority coffers since 1993. No one asked about the schools, hospitals, community centers and universities that were supposed to be built with the donations. Nor did anyone raise the possibility that perhaps Islamic fundamentalism and hatred, not economics, might have something to do with homicide bombers.

Wolfensohn, who spent $500,000 of his own money as part of a $14 million deal to buy the functioning hothouses left behind by the Jews of Gush Katif, didn't seem too perturbed by the fact that in the week following Israel's withdrawal, Palestinian looters damaged one third of the greenhouses, hauling off computers used to monitor crops, irrigation pumps and anything they could strip down as PA security officers stood by. But the Palestinian Minister of Finance took Wolfensohn on a tour of Gaza the day before his Jerusalem talk, and the two men reported "everything is again in pristine condition."

The thinking of Wolfensohn and Clinton on matters Middle Eastern is obviously influenced by the Palestinians with whom they have come into contact. Wolfensohn shared the Jerusalem podium with Zahi Khouri, a prominent Palestinian industrialist who divides his time between Orlando and Jerusalem. Khouri, educated in France (MBA from INSEAD) and Germany (M.Sc) is the CEO of the Coca Cola Company in the Palestinian territories. His resume includes stints as Chairman of Palestine Telecommunications, and Chairman of Intram Investments Inc., a major New York-based developer specializing in real estate and the hospitality sector in Orlando. Khouri is on the board of a slew of other companies including La Vie S.A., a leading manufacturer of organic food; Cairo Amman Bank; the Middle East Capital Group; the Palestine Development and Investment Co. and HIG Investments in Miami.

Bill Clinton told a Jerusalem audience the other night that he knows there's potential for the Palestinians because he meets many prosperous Palestinian businesspeople all over the world in the "Palestinian Diaspora." Neither Wolfensohn nor Clinton seemed to have noticed that the majority of Palestinians living abroad, including Khouri, are Christians, who tend to be the best educated and most affluent and the least likely to prosper under Hamas or Fatah rule. Neither did the two American gentlemen think to put out a call to these successful Palestinians in suits to aid their brethren back home in the same manner that the Jewish Diaspora has helped Israel since its inception.

Wolfensohn's main message was that Israel and the Palestinians would have to resolve to work out the thorny issues themselves. The Quartet, made up of the U.S, Russia, United Nations and the European Union, will be there to provide support, "but if you want to blow each other up, I have a nice house in Wyoming and in New York and Australia and I will watch with sadness as you are doing it."

And the very next day, Condi Rice announces that Israel will open up the Gaza crossings and allow Palestinians and Egyptians to monitor the very places they have used to let in the weapons used to murder thousands of Israelis over the past five years.

When do we get the opportunity to tell Mr. Wolfensohn, Ms. Rice and Mr. Clinton just what we think of them and their understanding of how to bring an end to the Arab onslaught against Israel?