The latest odd couple in the quixotic quest for Middle East peace is a pair of iconoclastic multimillionaires — one Israeli, one Palestinian — who say they want to push their wary political leaders back to the negotiating table.
At the World Economic Forum at a Dead Sea resort in Jordan last weekend, Israeli venture capitalist Yossi Vardi and Palestinian oil tycoon Munib al-Masri announced that they had been working on a secret project for the past year — forming a united front of 200 top business leaders from Israel and the West Bank to persuade their respective leaders to back Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s effort to restart peace talks, which have essentially been flat-lined since late 2008.
It’s the new peace camp, but unlike the scores of advocacy groups and diplomats before it, this one is led by moguls with very deep pockets.
The group calls itself “Breaking the Impasse” and includes corporate heavyweights from the left and right, religious and secular, who don’t agree on the details — except that there should be a state of Israel and a state of Palestine, both living peacefully and side by side.
Many are controversy-averse chief executives of major Israeli and Palestinian corporations, and for a year before the group’s debut, they were quietly courted by Masri, 80, and Vardi, 70, in what the two called “safe spaces” — such as the sidelines of global economic conferences in Istanbul, Geneva and Davos, Switzerland.
“We are a silent majority, but we will be silent no longer,” said Vardi, a high-tech impresario and angel investor who is known as the “Godfather” of Tel Aviv’s version of Silicon Valley. A backer of more than 60 start-ups, developer of instant messaging and adviser to Amazon.com, Vardi is one of Israel’s richest men — and pals with actor Ashton Kutcher.
“I don’t know if this is about grandkids,” Vardi said, referring to a claim that aspiring peacemakers here often make. “I do know it’s good for Israel, and it’s good for the Palestinians,” to seek a two-state solution.
Nothing about their pitch is really new, he said, except that the top business leaders on both sides are trying to get involved, and the timing might be good. “It is understandable after all these years to be skeptical, but not to be cynical,” he said.
Vardi was involved in Israel’s previous peace negotiations with Egypt, Jordan and Syria, so he says nothing is impossible.
Masri, Vardi and a small delegation met privately with Kerry in Washington on March 12. At the Dead Sea, the secretary of state praised the pair of tycoons as “visionaries.”
But they appear to be working at odds. Last weekend, Kerry unveiled a $4 billion private-sector economic development proposal for the West Bank. Masri said the business leaders he is working with would not enter into any partnerships until a peace process is underway.
“In terms of influence, I believe the group represents a meaningful percentage of the gross domestic product of Israel, and probably a bit more than that in the West Bank,” said Klaus Schwab, a German economist and founder of the World Economic Forum.
Vardi acknowledged that there have been “a gazillion peace solutions” and that only Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can decide to restart talks. He said the business leaders would not draft their own peace plan — which he called “a popular pastime” here — but were promising the two governments political support if they entered negotiations.
“I was impressed by the awareness of the business people that they cannot fix the conflict but that they were pleading with the leadership to cut to the chase and make a peace treaty,” said David Horovitz, editor and columnist at the Times of Israel.
Masri is widely known as “the richest man in Palestine.” He shuttles between London and the West Bank city of Nablus, running a holding company with interests in agriculture, hotels, banking, construction and energy.
Masri, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, first made his fortune in oil and gas in North Africa. Although he could live anywhere in the world, he built a Palladian-style villa on a hilltop in Nablus. Then he stocked the place with Picassos — and a herd of gazelles.
“As businessmen,” Masri said, “we say this deal is doable.”
His name has been floated several times as a candidate for prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. In his spare time, he has been working at brokering reconciliation between the two main Palestinian political factions, Fatah and Hamas, which are bitterly at odds.
Vardi said Masri approached him at a conference in Istanbul a year ago and said that although the two had everything that a long and prosperous life could give, they had failed — a warning that Vardi said left him “frightened.”
At the World Economic Forum, Vardi told the audience that it was time for peace: “It is too much, too long and too painful. Too many mothers on both sides shed too many tears. Enough!”
After Masri met with Israeli discount grocery magnate Rami Levy in Nablus in November, part of the below-the-radar meetings designed to garner support, some Palestinian media criticized Masri for working with an “occupier.” Levy’s name does not appear on the list of supporters published by the group.
Masri is unapologetic, but he says the group — now that it has been unveiled — will conduct all its business in public from here on out.
“There are many risks,” he said of the status quo. “For myself, I don’t care so much. I am old and want to see peace between Palestine and Israel before I die. But for the younger members of our group, there are many dangers.”
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.