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Israeli Settlers Want to Make Business Deals in Dubai. Pity They Have Nothing to Offer

David Rosenberg
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A member of Israeli high-tech delegation stands in front of a poster of Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum during a meeting with Emirati counterparts in Dubai, October 27, 2020.
A member of Israeli high-tech delegation stands in front of a poster of Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum during a meeting with Emirati counterparts in Dubai, October 27, 2020. Credit: KARIM SAHIB - AFP
David Rosenberg

We don’t need much reminding that we live in strange times. We remember that every time we put on a mask or stay two meters away from old friends. But times got a little stranger this week, when a delegation of West Bank settlers showed up in Dubai to drum up investment and trade deals.

Since relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates were officially normalized, it seems that anyone and everyone with a product to flog has made the pilgrimage. One company in Dubai has even made a deal with a winery that grows and processes its grapes in the Golan Heights. It seems the occupation is taking a back seat to business.

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Yossi Dagan, the head of the West Bank regional council who led the delegation to Dubai, isn’t exactly an apolitical businessman looking for capital wherever he can find it. Only three months ago he had joined other settler leaders in calling the UAE deal a stab in the back, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly traded his promised West Bank annexation for the agreement.

This week, Dagan spoke as if he could enjoy the best of both worlds. “Most of the citizens of Israel, myself included, continue to call for and even demand that Prime Minister Netanyahu apply full sovereignty in Judea and Samaria,” he wrote in a Facebook post, referring to the annexation of West Bank lands. Dagan even declared that there is “no contradiction between our demand to impose sovereignty and the strengthening of commercial and industrial ties for businesses in Samaria [the northern West Bank].”

Yossi Dagan at a protest in front of the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, 2018. Credit: Oren Ben Hakon

Setting aside whether Dagan’s political reasoning is hypocritical or delusional, an examination of the commercial angle reveals a far simpler reality: There are no businesses in the settlements for Emiratis to make deals with.

Dagan says he spent two days in Dubai, during which he met with 20 “very serious” businesspeople, some of whom posed for pictures with him, wearing masks. He doesn’t name the Emiratis in his Facebook post, nor does he name the business executives who accompanied him on the trip. And yet Dagan expresses confidence that opportunity is just around the corner: “I am happy to report that with God’s help, there will be direct exports from Samaria to the UAE.”

At least one media outlet did name some of the Israeli executives, revealing the absurdity of the whole venture. Aside from two state-owned development companies which aren’t engaged in anything that could be exported (one, the Central Samaria Development Co., doesn’t even have an English-language website), the other two are tiny businesses that have factories in the West Bank but are headquartered in Israel.

Jewish settlers sits in their Achiya settlement vineyard at the West Bank during a ceremony which the mark the first grapes harvesting, 2010. Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

Dagan talked about the Dubai visit as “another step on the way turning the Samaria region into a business center and a key economic power in the State of Israel,” but after more than 50 years of settlement, they are nowhere near that goal.

The settlement enterprise has never been about economic development but about increasing the number of Jewish warm bodies in the West Bank. There is a disproportionate number of settlers who work for local public institutions, and the great majority of settlers who work in the private sector cross over into Israel for work. There aren’t any jobs closer to home.

There are a handful of industrial zones in the West Bank, but these add up to small change in terms of real business. The few global companies that operated in the West Bank, such as SodaStream and the cosmetics manufacturer Ahava, have left. What remains are tiny enterprises serving the local market and employing low-cost Palestinian labor. They’re not the kind of businesses that are going to whet the appetite of Gulf investors, even if Emiratis are willing to ignore the politics.

As Dagan was holding his meetings in Dubai, Nabil Shaath, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said it was “painful to witness Arab cooperation with one of the worst manifestations of aggression against the Palestinian people,” the Israeli settlement project.

The Palestinians are suffering a slew of setbacks in the diplomatic arena, and the changing of the guard at the White House is unlikely to reverse that. Rather than issuing angry pro forma statements, Palestinians should consider making lemonade out of lemons.

Businesses in the UAE are unlikely to invest in Palestinian businesses in the West Bank, but the UAE’s giant sovereign wealth funds might be convinced to buy some atonement for the betrayal of the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian economy is in a dire state and even a few tens of millions in investments, as opposed to government aid, would help ease the crisis.

Just as Israel is allowing Qatari aid into Gaza in order to prevent the economic crisis there from spinning out of control, it would be in Israel’s interest to let the UAE invest in the West Bank. And if this is not self-evident for Netanyahu, the UAE is in a good position to exert a little pressure on Israel.

For the Palestinians, Emirati investment would stink of hypocrisy – taking money from the hand that just slapped it. But at least it would be for a good cause.

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