JERUSALEM (AP) — A Palestinian businessman who flouts political taboos by working with Israeli settlers in the West Bank could soon have a role in President Donald Trump's Middle East peace plan.
While Palestinian officials have swiftly rejected next month's planned Mideast conference in Bahrain, Ashraf Jabari says he will be thrilled to attend.
Jabari has forged close ties with U.S. diplomats but is viewed with deep suspicion by his fellow Palestinians. That has raised questions about U.S. attempts to cultivate him and other businessmen as alternatives to the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority.
The U.S. has not yet released an official list of attendees at the June 25-26 conference, which seeks to use economic development to lure the Palestinians to the negotiating table. U.S. officials have said it would convene individual business leaders, including some Palestinians who live outside the Palestinian territories.
"Our economic plan is an ambitious but achievable vision; it presents an alternative path with the potential to unlock a prosperous future for the Palestinian people if they choose to follow it," said Jason Greenblatt, Trump's Mideast envoy.
The Palestinian Authority has said that any plan focusing on economic development at the expense of people's political aspirations is unacceptable. Well-known Palestinian business magnate Bashar Masri, for one, has declined his invitation, vowing not to attend anything that flies in the face of the "Palestinian national consensus."
The Palestinians seek an independent state on territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, including the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and the international community overwhelmingly still supports the two-state solution.
But Jabari said it is time for some different thinking, noting a quarter-century of failed negotiations.
"No Israeli prime minister will ever meet Palestinian demands or vice versa," Jabari told The Associated Press. "We can't keep waiting for a state. We have to think about this area as one entity, not two entities and two realities."
Jabari's vision effectively erases Israel's pre-1967 boundary with the West Bank. It is a vision that is shared by Israeli settlers, who reject a pullout from the West Bank on a combination of religious and security grounds.
He says the West Bank's more than 2 million Palestinians should be granted full citizenship rights — a scenario that would threaten Israel's status as a Jewish-majority democracy.
For now, Jabari's partnership with the settlers, called the "Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce," referring to the West Bank by its biblical name, claims not to have a political agenda.
It says it seeks to bring Palestinians and Israeli settlers together, joined by a desire to make money and a shared resentment of the Palestinian Authority and disillusionment over failed peace talks. Its members talk of business ventures springing from unexpected personal relationships and gush about benefits of free trade.
"We're talking about business-to-business relationships, unfolding on a sub-sovereign level to achieve greater regional stability," said Avi Zimmerman, the chamber's co-founder and a spokesman for the settlement of Ariel.
It's a lofty ambition that squares with what Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior Middle East adviser, has revealed about his "fresh approach" to the still mysterious U.S. proposal to settle the conflict: it will start out as a business deal more than a political one, focusing heavily on attracting large-scale investment and infrastructure work to the Palestinian territories.
The deal faces major questions. Without an official Palestinian partner in the West Bank, it remains unclear how the U.S. will carry out such large-scale projects there. The Gaza Strip is ruled by Hamas, which Israel and the U.S. consider a terrorist group. And it is hard to imagine donors lining up billions of dollars without an accompanying political plan.
On the Israeli side, newly re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the process of forming a coalition that is expected to be dominated by hard-liners who oppose even minimal concessions to the Palestinians.
Like the architects of the peace plan, the chamber has offered only scant outlines of its projects. It promotes Palestinian-Israeli business partnerships, including plans for a few jointly owned shopping centers along the West Bank's main highway. More broadly, it seeks foreign investment for large-scale infrastructure projects connecting Israeli settlements with Palestinian cities, mutually accessible medical centers and tourism initiatives.
"This is not about Palestinians working in Israeli factories," Zimmerman said of the Israeli-run industrial zones that have long employed low-wage Palestinian laborers near the settlements. "This is about a shared market, what can be gained from doing business with your neighbor."
Its idealistic mission is enough to satisfy David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel and a long-time supporter of Israeli settlements. Friedman has nurtured ties between the council and the Trump administration.
Friedman has lashed out repeatedly at the Palestinian Authority since it severed most ties with the U.S. after Trump recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December 2017.
"To hold the Palestinian people hostage to a political solution to the conflict when business efforts are ripe in front of us is a grave mistake," Friedman said in a speech at the chamber's first international forum in February, drawing fervent applause from an audience of West Bank settlement mayors, ministers and a handful of Palestinian businessmen.
At the forum, Jabari hailed Friedman as his "dearest friend," saying, "We are not afraid. We're ready to accept Jews in our houses and in our factory plants."
Jabari often hosts Israeli settlers at his home in the West Bank city of Hebron. At a recent "iftar" dinner during Islam's holy month of Ramadan, Jabari served kosher food for his Jewish guests.
While welcomed by the settlers, Jabari is seen much differently by fellow Palestinians. His embrace of the settlers has confined him to the political fringe, reviled by fellow Palestinians who regularly tar him as a "collaborator" — an insult that bears threats of violence.
His iftar meal drew harsh criticism and even death threats on Palestinian social media. Prominent Palestinian activist Issa Amro called Jabari "notorious" for befriending Hebron's ultranationalist settler community.
And Ahmed Majdalani, a senior Palestinian official, declared that any Palestinian who participates in the Bahrain conference "is no more than a collaborator."
Jabari responded: "The Palestinian Authority is the only collaborator, working with the Israeli government since the Oslo accords."
He believes ordinary Palestinians would support his pragmatic approach to profit from their shared geography with Israel if it weren't for the authority's "brainwashing," crackdown on dissent and adherence to a two-state doctrine he says is increasingly divorced from reality.
"What have we gained from bloodshed and separation? Nothing," he said. "We need to look at what went wrong and do something different so we can make it right."
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