“From SodaStream to Rawabi: What Peace Might Look Like”

“From SodaStream to Rawabi: What Peace Might Look Like”

Just about a year ago, I had the opportunity to visit the SodaStream factory in Israel. Actually, how do define exactly where the factory is located has led to one of the more explosive and high profile manifestations of the so-called BDS (boycott-civestment-sanction) dispute.

Technically, although the factory is located in territory administered by Israel since the Six-Day War, it is situated in an area of the West Bank that Palestinians consider indispensable to the territorial integrity of any future Palestinian state– what is referred to as E-1. Because of that, the SodaStream product has become the epicenter of a worldwide attempt by anti-Israel forces to force a change in Israel’s so-called “settlement policies” by boycotting any product produced there.

No one product in that category is better known, or more universally liked, than SodaStream seltzer makers. And when an actress as popular and accomplished as Scarlett Johansson became Soda Stream’s spokesperson, and the company decided to buy commercial time during the Super Bowl, well… the gloves came off and the fight was fully engaged.

What I learned a year ago on that visit– and what has become more universally known since this recent fracas erupted– is that the Soda Stream factory, owned and run by an American Jewish oleh to Israel, is a remarkable example of Israelis and Palestinians working together in a mutually respectful and productive environment. The company’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum, is passionately committed to creating a socially conscious business model. Israelis and Palestinians work side by side, wear the same uniforms, eat in the same dining room, make the same salaries, and enjoy the same benefits. When I had the chance to hear Mr. Birnbaum speak again just a week ago in Jerusalem, he reiterated his utter frustration with those, particularly in Europe, who rush to boycott his product without knowing exactly how progressive a company SodaStream is, or understanding what it represents as a business model. I remember thinking a year ago– and I still feel this way today– that Soda Stream provides us with a glimpse, an intuition, of what an Israel and Palestine at peace might look at.

Ironically, almost a year later during my participation in the recent Israel Mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations just over a week ago, I had the opportunity to visit another project that might also be described as what Israel and Palestine at peace might look like. The project is Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian community… what a friend described as Columbia, Maryland in the West Bank.

Set into the desert mountains some fifteen kilometers from Ramallah, Rawabi is the pet project of Bashar Massri, a Palestinian real estate developer and entrepreneur. Though no one is living there yet, all of the apartments in the first group of buildings have been sold, and occupancy is slated for December of this year. This is no small project. Projections are for some thirty thousand Palestinians to be living there upon completion. The apartments are lovely, beautifully appointed, the kind any of us would be happy to live in. There are five schools to be built there, one mosque, a single church, and the entire community will be wired with broadband internet access. There will be a high-end shopping mall, restaurants, cafes… you get the picture.

All of the promotional material for Rawabi shows fashionably dressed Palestinian couples in their twenties and thirties, and the people who show you around the development are similarly young and hip. The message is clear and unmistakable. This is an attempt to create a life for young Palestinians that will be worth living, and worth preserving. In so many ways, this is exactly what those of us in the Zionist community have been waiting to see… the emergence of a Palestinian middle class that is more interested in living an honorable and pleasurable life, a normal life, than in engaging in perpetual war against Israel. Give them what to live for, the thinking goes, and that becomes the most powerful disincentive to terror and hate.

I agree. I’m completely on board with the idea.

But here’s what, to me, at least, is the most interesting piece of the Rawabi picture, and a troubling one at that. The funding for the project comes partly from Mr. Massri, but overwhelmingly from Qatar. Though largely a silent partner, it is Qatar’s investment in Massri’s vision that is creating this community.

Personally, I found the visit to Rawabi to be quite remarkable. As I said, this has been what has been so sorely missing from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the clear and unmistakable sign that there is a significant cohort of that population that wants to live life more than to glorify martyrdom and death. But as I walked around and admired what was happening there, one set of related questions nagged at me, and I asked them of Mr. Massri when we met.

Why is this the first planned Palestinian community that we are seeing this far down the road in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even more to the point, why was it necessary to use Qatari money to accomplish it? Over the years, hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars have been donated to the Palestinian Authority for the purpose of creating the infrastructure of a Palestinian state. Where are the housing developments for Palestinians? Why does a private entrepreneur have to be building the first one? Why are we still told of the wretched conditions under which they live, even in refugee camps, with the implication being that, somehow, Israel is exclusively responsible for their misery? Where has all that money gone?

To his credit, while Mr. Massri did entirely answer the question, neither did he deny its force. He acknowledged bad management, poor prioritization of national priorities, egos, etc. The word that he left out, of course, is embezzlement. That much money doesn’t get frittered away by inefficiency. Someone, or some group of people, is using it for other purposes.

I would dare to say that Suha Arafat is living quite well in Paris, and Yassir, who can no longer speak for himself, had more than a little bit to do with the “setting” of the aforementioned priorities, not the least of which was the pockets of PA officials. What is sad, and frustrating, is that had those monies been spent for what they were intended, and had the Palestinians been benefitting from a Palestinian Authority that really had is constituents’ best interests at heart, the level of anger and resulting jihadist ideology so prevalent among young Palestinians might be radically different from what we see today. But alas…

At the conclusion of our meeting with Mr. Massri, a colleague alluded to his obvious support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When he heard this, he let out a hearty laugh, and said that the questioner was wrong. “I don’t believe in a two-state solution. I believe in a three-state solution! One for you, one for us, and one for the extremists in both of our camps to share…”

There can be no avoiding the fact that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and its sister conflict between Israel and the Arab world, is infinitely more complex than most of us can understand. Were it easy so solve, it would have been solved long ago. The current political instability all around Israel only makes any attempt at resolution seem even more quixotic.

But when I think of the positive dimensions of what SodaStream represents now and could in the future, and what Rawabi might represent down the line to those middle class Palestinians who want peace, all I can say to Mr. Massri’s comment on three states is “Amen to that!”

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