Who’s selling peace in the supermarket?
A mission to find work for a Palestinian friend at an Israeli supermarket in the West Bank turns into a surprise encounter with two prominent businessmen, Rami Levi and Munib al-Masri, who are planning what sounds like a public-private partnership for peace.
I am taking my friend Samir (not his real name) to the Rami Levi supermarket, at the Gush Etzion settlement bloc roundabout on Route 60, south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Route 60 is the main highway in the southern West Bank, and is used by settlers and Palestinians alike. Samir is from the Deheishe refugee camp just past the southern edge of Bethlehem on the Hebron Road, the same road that starts its journey at the Old City of Jerusalem.
The Hebron Road goes past the Deheishe camp, then passes the Palestinian villages of Al-Khader and Ertas, the first very busy, and Ertas - a Biblical oasis wonderland, home to Solomon's Pools and a spectacular monastery that gets very few visitors - before winding into Route 60. About 12 kilometers further south the road reaches the roundabout where the supermarket and a cluster of five Gush Etzion settlements are located. There are probably more young Palestinians working in this store than at any other single retail outlet location in the West Bank. Samir has never been here.
Not only do Palestinians and Israelis work side by side in this large supermarket, local Palestinian families and Israeli settlers also shop together. And while the employees apparently communicate very well with each other, the shoppers who come from both sides of the separation fence are free to ignore each other with ease.
My supermarket mission is twofold, but neither involves shopping. I want to see if there is any activity from the Sociology 101 point of view: How worthwhile is everyday contact between Israelis and Palestinians that is increasingly rare elsewhere? The other part of my mission in the aisles is to find my friend Samir a job.
We are told right away that without basic Hebrew, Samir cannot work here. That’s that for my brilliant idea, then. We say "Shabbat shalom" to the elderly Israeli day- manager, whose English is worse than my Hebrew, and move on down the aisles.
"You want to buy something?" Samir asks me. "You want to talk to people about shopping for peace?" He is not smiling, he’s not a happy shopper. Suddenly he has nothing to do in the store.
Damn, why can't Samir speak Hebrew as well as he speaks English?
Suddenly we are caught up in a peace whirlwind, or at least that's what it feels like. A small crowd of mostly Palestinian workers and shoppers is gathering around two men talking about a new peace initiative.
"We want peace, we want a solution based on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 from the Beirut Summit," a casually but elegantly dressed middle-aged Palestinian man is announcing in English to anyone who cares to listen. "Rami and I are forming a coalition, and we are going to move peace forward based on a two-state solution in accordance with that 2002 initiative."
So, who are these guys, I wonder. This casually elegant Palestinian obviously knows what he is talking about. A local settler shopper tells me that the short guy next to him wearing a T-shirt and jeans is none other than Rami Levi himself, looking like a store clerk, not the head of a wildly popular supermarket chain that includes this store here, at the Gush Etzion roundabout, that could be a model for a TV mini-series.
Then Samir tells me that the elegant man doing the talking is a heavyweight Palestinian businessman and philanthropist from Nablus. A close companion of Yasser Arafat, Munib al-Masri made a fortune in oil and gas in the Arab world. He is the head of the Padico investment holding group, which controls 35 companies that include telecoms - such as the Jawal mobile operator, construction, tourism (the Intercontinental Hotel Group), energy, environment, banking, finance and agriculture. He is also the behind the scenes negotiator between Fatah and Hamas, and has reportedly refused the post of PA Prime Minister three times. He is sometimes known as the 'Palestinian Rothschild' and sometimes as 'The Duke of Nablus'.
The Palestinian workers and shoppers all know who he is and seem astonished to find him in this supermarket…and with no bodyguards. The settler shoppers do not have a clue as to his identity, but seem to understand that this is somebody special.
"You want to do business with Rami," I ask him, introducing myself as a journalist.
"No, no business together," he is quick to answer. "Rami makes enough money already, and so do I. No, we want to convince our governments to start talking peace again. In the Oslo Accords, the PLO recognized the State of Israel in return for establishing a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders of the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a fair solution for the plight of the refugees who lost their homes and land.”
Yes, the man is to be taken seriously. I don’t know if the settlers can do that, but I can.
"But Netanyahu wants Israel to be recognized as the Jewish state,” I say. “Who will do that?"
"They will recognize Israel, and then Israel can call itself whatever it wants," al-Masri explains, speaking with the confidence of a man used to getting his way. "But we must find an amiable solution to the refugee problem. This means as per the Oslo Accord, an amiable solution is to be worked out as part of the two-state solution.”
"Why are you doing this now?"
"I want to see peace in Israel and Palestine before I die. And both sides really want peace and can benefit from it. We’ve seen enough suffering by mothers on both sides. It’s time to lead peaceful, safe lives.”
He turns to Israeli shoppers examining bottles of olive oil and says, "Shalom, shalom to you."
Then a dark-skinned settler with a jet-black beard explains to al-Masri in halting Arabic that God has given this land to the Jews and that it is theirs, not the Palestinians'.
Al-Masri looks at me. “I just spoke with Khaled Meshaal [Hamas politburo chief] who told me he supports this initiative," he says, “but how can I speak to these hardliners? This is about peace, not God. We are destined to live together.”
So perhaps there is a problem already. Why is this peace initiative different from any other?
Rami Levi's reported store policy is only to stock Israeli products. But in the Gush Etzion store, Rami could set up a Palestinian Product Place. He could sell freshly ground za'atar, like what I buy from a certain store in the Bethlehem market that grinds the dried hyssop leaves, sesame and sumac several times a day. By the way, hyssop is a protected plant species in Israel, but not in the PA, so perhaps Rami could buy it from local Palestinians and do the grinding right in the store.
He could also sell freshly ground coffee with cardamon, and the rich orange and white knafa cheese pastry. Shoppers from both sides would go wild.
Two 20-year-old Israeli-Americans selling cakes for Shabbat outside the store are watching al-Masri and Levi working the small crowd. They have never heard of al-Masri and are sceptical about peace, but praise what seems to be the launching of this unlikely initiative.
"This store is a good place to begin but making peace is tougher than shopping together," comments Shabetai. "We want a lot of what they have, and the Palestinians want what we have."
"It's nice that powerful people are thinking of the big picture," says Ariella, originally from Brooklyn, working with him. "Maybe they have the resources to find a solution."
Maybe this initiative should be called 'Powerful People for Peace'? Or how about "Powerful Push for Peace?" Whatever the name, it would certainly be a good example of the original business world PPP term, "Public-Private-Partnership."
Maybe other political and economic heavyweights on both sides could get involved to push their governments back to the negotiating table, and with them, interested local businesses, and behind-the-scenes figures from outside the immediate geographic neighbourhood, Arabs and Jews from abroad, who could bring their influence and experience and could also lean on that negotiating table.
A visit to this West Bank supermarket offers us a useful metaphor for the frozen negotiations between Israel and the PA. Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem to be acting like the two parallel populations of shoppers at Rami Levi. They glide along, filling their caddies with the things they need, while ignoring each other. They don't have to talk because no power players are pushing them to do so.
My friend Samir would be so happy to land a job, anything, never mind a post that matches his business degree from Al Quds University, the best university in the West Bank. Recently, he has begun praying. It makes him feel better, he tells me, so there is no more drinking beer with me at night in Beit Jala. But I still hope that him finding a job will be easier than making peace.
Brett Kline is a journalist based in Paris who visits Israel frequently