Could an Israeli Supermarket King Become a Palestinian Hero?

Rami Levy wants to bring cheap chicken and shopping mall ecstasy as part of his vision of co-existence. His vision is both flawed and hopeless

David Rosenberg
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Rami Levy, founder and chief executive officer of Rami Levy Chain Stores Hashikma Marketing 2006 Ltd., Israel's largest discount food retailer, poses for a photograph at his company headquarters in Jerusalem, Israel on Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014
Rami Levy, founder and chief executive officer of Rami Levy Chain Stores, poses for a photograph at his company headquarters in Jerusalem, November 23, 2014Credit: Bloomberg
David Rosenberg

Forget Moshe Dayan the general or Yoni Netanyahu of Entebbe fame: The real hero in today’s consumerist Israel is Rami Levy

Even when Levy isn’t engaged in sales gimmicks like selling chicken for a shekel per kilogram or milk for less than bottled water, the prices at his eponymous supermarkets are nearly always the lowest in Israel. What more could the Israeli of 2019 ask for?

Levy would like to be a hero to Palestinian shoppers, too. He operates four supermarkets in the West Bank: two in settlements that Palestinians cannot enter freely and two that are equally accessible to Palestinian and Israeli Jewish shoppers. His stores around the country, not only in the West Bank, employ lots of Palestinians, too.

As much as it’s all good business, Levy is not hesitant to say it’s also about ideology. “In Judea and Samaria we have four branches. ... I think that coexistence needs to come from here. To show that it is possible to live together, to work together and serve each other in a fair and moral way,” he said a couple of years ago, expressing sentiments he’s repeated many times.

A visit to the crowded checkout at the Rami Levy branch at the Gush Etzion junction on a typical Friday morning shows the vision in miniature: Settlers in knitted kippas mingle with veiled housewives, a Palestinian cashier wishes a soldier stocking up on food for a weekend on base a “Shabbat Shalom,” Palestinian employees joke in Arabic.

There certainly have been violent incidents there over the years, but they’re a rare exception to the rule. Whatever you want to make of it, Rami Levy’s occupation is not the one that you read about in the media.

Last month Levy took another big step in his coexistence business, opening a shopping center in Atarot, at the very northeastern tip of Jerusalem.

By design, it’s a short walk from the Qalandiyah checkpoint, a miniature hell of long lines, humiliating security checks and frequent violence. Palestinians from East Jerusalem and those that can make it through Qalandiyah from the West Bank can now shop like Israelis — and maybe even with Israelis, if they dare to go. The big Israeli retail chains are there, as are cafes and restaurants and plenty of free parking. About one-third of the retailers are Palestinian.

Call for boycott

It’s too early to say whether Levy’s mall will be a hit with Palestinians. Official Palestine — that is, the Palestinian Authority, Fatah and a host of human-rights organizations — have all called for boycotting the mall. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this week refused to let Levy join a delegation of Israelis businesspeople and academics supporting a two-state solution who visited him in Ramallah.

But the history of Levy’s other retail forays into the Palestinian market show that ordinary Palestinians blithely ignore the PA’s calls to boycott settler businesses.  

Rami Levy is not a settler (he lives in Jerusalem), but his unusually prominent role doing business in the West Bank makes him as much a part of the settlement enterprise as someone who lives there. And, in that context, he is a “nice settler.”

Alongside the better-known “hilltop youth” and “price-tag” vigilantes, there a small minority of settlers that shares his vision. This minority is not about to compromise over Israel’s right to every square meter of Judea and Samaria, but they actively reach out to the Palestinians around them and sincerely believe in coexistence.

Apologists will say that Palestinian families have no choice but to ignore the boycott calls. That may be true when it comes to working in settlements but that can hardly be the case when it comes to shopping. There may be a paucity of well-paying jobs in the PA, but there’s no shortage of Palestinian stores.

So does that make Rami Levy a Palestinian hero?

The nitty-gritty of how this coexistence will work is another matter, but the implication seems to be that the Jews will be benevolent rulers over a population of contented Palestinians. The Palestinians won’t get their state, but they’ll get unheard-of bargains at their local Rami Levy supermarket, and they’ll have better-paying jobs with Israeli employers than they could ever expect from their fellow Palestinians.

What happens when a Palestinian in this paradise of coexistence decides he wants to buy a house in the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim? We’ll leave that for our children to decide.

The idea that economic development should precede a political settlement isn’t crazy. But apart from Rami Levy and a few others, no one in Israel or the PA is pursuing it.

Palestinian leaders worry that economic development and prosperity will undermine popular resistance to the occupation. You would think that alone would give a few people on the Israeli right pause and make them want to adopt the policy.

But a government that is beholden to the great majority of settlers who aren’t nice doesn’t want Palestinian resistance to disappear: A key justification for never giving up Judea and Samaria is that the Palestinians are violent and implacably opposed to Israel’s existence. A placid West Bank of factories, offices and shopping malls would be dangerous. It might even lead to a revived Oslo process.

The dynamics of the occupation are too big even for a grocery magnate like Rami Levy to change it. For all his noble intentions, it’s the settlers who ran riot last week that are really creating the Israeli-Palestinian future.