Money Makes the World Go Round, but Can It Bring Mideast Peace?

While Israel insists on building in settlements and the Palestinians object to talks without a moratorium, the U.S. is dealing with midterm elections; meanwhile they all talk shop.

Does anyone still remember the idea of a process which was supposed to lead to Middle East peace – lead by mutual concessions, confidence-building measures, and maybe even some bilateral gestures? Apparently, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, hasn’t forgotten.

IDB president Dr. Ahmad Mohamed Ali
Natasha Mozgovaya

“I have no scientific empirical basis for saying this—but Israelis are generally not aware of what is in the Arab Peace Initiative," Oren recently said at an event at the Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace in front of leaders of the Arab-American and Muslim-American community.

"But they [Israelis] are aware that the Arab world is not taking any steps, even symbolic steps towards normalization. And those steps would have immense impact on Israeli public opinion. And if the Saudis were tomorrow either host a peace conference or allow our planes to head east, that would have immediate resonance on the Israeli public opinion and would greatly reduce some of the skepticism.”

This could be so. I am just wondering how welcoming the Israeli public would be to a Muslim Bank branch if one opened in Tel-Aviv. Maybe, after all, the flights will be safer.

A couple of days before Oren's speech, I attended an Islamic Development Bank event, on the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund's annual meeting. After receiving an invitation but not quite sure if the Israeli reporter might be kicked out, I asked whether they meant it – apparently, they did, after all, it’s Washington.

Based on the sobering world poverty statistics (400 million of the world’s one billion people, who live on less than $1a day, live in 5 IDB member countries - Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Sudan) which account for 250 million of this 400 million. The World Bank does care – but in some countries, they have to work with the IDB which complies to the sharia law.

The Islamic finance expands its operations globally, and while western governments might be wary of the implications of the new players, many financial institutions are exploring energetically this new field. IDB president Dr. Ahmad Mohamed Ali says that he is sorry so many people are not aware of what his institution does, but it’s not his mandate to fight Islamophobia, and he only hopes that their positive work will help to strengthen the positive image of Islam in the global village, “when people will see how Muslims contribute to make the world a better place and fight poverty in Islamic countries.”

The Palestinians are, of course, Bank members – and Dr. Ali says that from his perspective, the most challenging places that his bank works with today are “Somalia and Palestine.”

Authorized to manage two major Gaza relief funds after operation Cast Lead, he wished the Israeli blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip would  be lifted so that they could be able “to do more.”

They work mainly with the NGOs, trying to improve the healthcare services, infrastructures and the education. He calls Gaza “the big cage”, but refuses to answer whether he sees any difference in governance between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. “We don’t intervene in the political issues of our members”, he tells me. “Our major concern is to assist the citizens of these countries and communities.”

The sharia-complying banking and finance system suffers from many nuances – and the support, apparently, is not based on common faith. One of the attendants at the event was Sharif Al-Gamal, the developer of the controversial proposed Islamic center two blocks away from Ground Zero – he asked the governor of Central Bank of Malaysia, Dr. Zeti Akhtar Aziz, whether her institution was ready to help him turn the project into a reality.

“This is a commercial transaction”, replied Dr. Zeti, and referred him to the International Investment Bank, which had the tools to address such a project.

As it currently seems, the Muslim Americans will have to figure out how to deal with their challenges by themselves. As for the question how the Obama administration officials see the current trends amplified by the “Ground zero mosque” polemics – special U.S. envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal, recently said that:

“What we are seeing now is not just anti-immigrant sentiment with Muslims. Almost all immigrant communities in any country face integration challenges, but the experience of Muslims now is different because of 9/11. If for instance two immigrants could come from India to the U.S. at the same time and in the same socio-economic status, one Hindu and one Muslim, no one would ever ask the Hindu to prove that he or she was a 'moderate Hindu.'"

"While deeply troubling and unfortunate -- it is a reality. And I believe discrimination and prejudice need to be called out and condemned," she added.

Meanwhile, Israel on Wednesday celebrated 25 years to the Free Trade agreement between the U.S. and Israel at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington – in the atmosphere according to Dan Senor and Saul Singer's book “Start up nation” that did wonders for Israel’s image abroad.

Sharon Kedmi, Trade ministry CEO told Haaretz that in the current U.S. economic circumstances, there is a defensive position – and Israel wants to keep the “nice numbers” generated by the U.S.-Israeli trade (11.9 billion dollar since the beginning of the year, 9% increase in comparison to the last year). Yet there is concern not to lose the territory to China and India “that are racing forward in all areas.”

Trade Minister Benyamin Ben-Eliezer told Haaretz that besides the economy, he talked to the U.S. officials about Iran – “not only the nuclear issue, but the Iranian intentions to create an axis that will swallow Iraq, an alignment with Syria, unfortunately, with Turkey, and they have an open road to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.”

The U.S. will get back to Middle Eastern diplomacy after the midterm elections.

The settlements moratorium is of no consequence because the main goal is to sit and talk about the core issues, Ben Eliezer said, adding that there is maybe half a year to reach a breakthrough before the next election.

“I don’t want to talk about the popularity of the American president”, he said. “The U.S. provides a strategic umbrella to the Middle East, and they should make every effort to bring the two leaders to talk about the core issues and bring stability to the region. It might be done within a year – it’s not a question of pressure or coalition, it’s a leader's decision.'

"The settlements question is procrastination on the Palestinians side," he added. "The question is whether leaders make this decision to go through until it’s completed the same as Rabin and Sharon made. I’ve accompanied Netanyahu to Egypt and I am convinced he is ready to talk to Abu-Mazen yesterday. Time is against us all. The main obstacle now is with Abu-Mazen [Abbas]– I’ve known him for many years, and he has to be sure that he is supported.”