Taking Stock / The Talkers, and the Doer

JORDAN - "I haven't wasted a single minute here," we were told by one of the Israeli tycoons participating in the World Economic Forum conference, which convened on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea this year. He didn't waste any time either before waxing loquacious about top-secret meetings with Arab parties on future cooperative ventures.

To us, it seemed that we noticed the same man every time we passed the bar, but it may have been coincidence. In any event, the bar and corridor are where the most interesting things happen at the forum, which usually takes place in Davos, Switzerland.

With the choice of venue, World Economic Forum president Klaus Schwab demonstrated sublime timing. The Iraq war transformed the atmosphere in the Middle East: Not only is the region no longer viewed as a powder keg, it is now seen as a source of business opportunities.

As if this wasn't enough, right before the world's economic leaders met at the oasis, the U.S. managed to force Israel and the Palestinians to adopt its road map.

The Israeli journalists at this year's conference were jaded by previous forums, back in the days of the (first) New Middle East. The headlines emanating from those meets reflected the spirit of the times - multibillion-dollar projects, regional banks and tourism, you name it. But almost nothing came from all the plans. Most were trashed for reasons of economic unfeasibility; others were crushed by the bitter realities, following the outbreak of the second intifada.

The name of the game for the Israelis this time was to keep a low profile. The delegation was smaller; its role on the agenda was kept low-key; and its businessmen did their best not to anger their Arab counterparts with gratuitous PR.

The chance of any major Israeli-Arab projects resulting from the talks is small. The mood on the Arab side is fragile. Yet everybody knows well that despite it all, something has changed. Israeli and Arab businessmen are openly sitting side by side, talking and mulling aloud about possibilities after the political situation clears up.

In your dreams

Some of the participants - Israelis, Americans and Europeans - are talking about the need to adopt an economic road map, in parallel with the political one. But the probability of this happening is remote. Until substantial diplomatic progress is made on the Arab side, economic developments are highly unlikely.

Apparently, however, we cannot do without a bombastic headline or two. So our new infrastructure minister, Joseph Paritzky, supplied the goods, after taking part in a discussion on a canal to link the Dead Sea with the Red Sea. It is a wacky idea with small likelihood of becoming reality, but at least it helped headline writers buy some bread.

Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert announced two new trade zones, which always sounds good; and what economic conference could pass without mention of "Dubai businessmen" who want to do deals with Israel.

Apparently, the only one who managed to turn pomposity into practice was Stef Wertheimer, who seems to have only one song in his repertoire - industry, exports, and industrial parks. Now he and his Jordanian partner hope to inaugurate an industrial park nearby Aqaba within a few months.

But Wertheimer flouts the norms by stating baldly that it will take years, many of them, before the project matures into a serious venture. Even his company, Iscar, which today boasts turnover of a billion dollars a year, took 50 years to reach that scale.

The Palestinian businessmen are bursting at the seams with complaints that the Israeli army and bureaucracy crushed the ability to do business in the territories. Some even claim it was deliberate policy aimed at protecting Israeli industry.

In answer, Stef sells his renowned ideology: Only businessmen who suffer can be entrepreneurs. You are fighting for the wrong things, water and land, he tells them, while in today's business world, only knowledge is power. You have to make a demand of yourselves, of an economic road map, without which the political road map will be valueless. Make sure the aid you get goes directly to companies and industry, not to the Palestinian government, he urges.

And he sums up with the most important point of all: The success of the Palestinian economy is just as important to Israel and it is to you, he tells them. Otherwise peace cannot descend upon the land, and the economies of both Israel and Palestine cannot grow.

He's not with me

Yet we found more than anger and grievances among the Palestinians businessman; we also found optimism.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas's son, who engages in advertising, says there are grounds for hope. He feels that the Palestinians, like the Israelis, finally understand they have to reach a solution before their economies collapse.

There was also a moment of gratification for the Israelis, after the speech by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. The Palestinian foreign minister, Nabil Sha'ath, gave his usual polished, sweeping performance, while Shalom read from a document and struggled to cope with the heckling.

The Israeli delegation felt embarrassed by their representation, but it was also a moment in which to sigh with relief. How wonderful it is that Silvan Shalom is at the Foreign Ministry, and not at the Finance Ministry any more.