Water sluiced over the glistening pink marble mined in the hills of the West Bank. The Palestinian company outside Hebron was a rare success story here, in that it exported around the world. Some of the marble was bound for hotel lobbies in the United States. And some of the marble went for the tombstones of the Israeli Defense Force soldiers killed in clashes between Israelis and Palestinians.
“It’s business,” said the Palestinian business owner with a shrug.
I spent 18 months in 2016-2017 working with the UN’s Office of the Quartet in Jerusalem, researching and writing about the Palestinian and Israeli economies. That time in one of the world’s most tragic situations shaped my thinking about why entrepreneurship is so important. Entrepreneurship is key to equitable economic development because it draws in and helps create a cross-section of leaders who embrace change.
I interviewed Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Great Britain on the history of the Quartet, on what moves peace forward, and what holds it back.
“You require a negotiation that will proceed step by step with changes that are producing higher living standards,” he said. “In order to get any viable peace process going you have got to be making significant changes on the ground.”
What matters, in other words, is that progress in negotiations is matched by progress on the ground – which means, shared economic progress. Peace and progress go as up a ladder. Blair pointed to his major accomplishments as those that opened up travel between Israelis and Palestinians.
Blair is flat-out despised in parts of the Middle East for his role in supporting the Bush Administration’s Iraq War. But he also played a key role in ending the conflict in Northern Ireland in 1998, and from 2007-2015, worked on the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. He emerged with his reputation for peacemaking more intact than most from that crucible, which is the graveyard of a lot of heroic reputations. His foundation still promotes the Arab Peace Initiative as a means toward peace.
When Business Holds Change Back
It seems almost simple, doesn’t it – progress on the ground and progress at the table? Of course it never is, in practice. I’ve reported on a lot of change efforts over the years, in communities, nations and internationally. In Israel/Palestine, I got a birds eye view of the peace process, such as it was at that point, in what was the last gasp of America’s support for a two-state solution before the election of Donald Trump. (Blair, by the way, had a strong suspicion Trump would win, because of Brexit).
Peace processes are usually created by elite diplomats from top universities – so when they look for people to help create change on the ground, they go to the ones they know. Business elites.
They’re often the last people you want – because by definition they have already learned to succeed in the status quo. They are like the businessman in Hebron.
My colleague Jean Benedict, who is working with me at Times of Entrepreneurship, made this clear about the situation among Israelis and Palestinians. “There is a ruling oligarchy of both business and political elites on both sides,” she told me.
If you’re going to build Blair’s stepladder — negotiation, followed by changes on the ground, back to negotiation — you need businesspeople and companies working on the ground that don’t at the same time benefit from the status quo. The longer a conflict goes on, the less likely it is that any businesspeople will have an incentive to be part of the change.
The marble cutter in Hebron was a prime example. He’d built a nice business on the circumstances of the occupation. “Dirty” industries and manual labor are outsourced by Israelis into the Palestinian Territories, for one thing. He was able to employ people in his extended family. The Israeli Defense Force representatives who buy tombstone marble from him are, if not friends, at least collegial. He and they have grown comfortable in a miserable situation, like the proverbial frogs in the hot water.
For every would-be hero who comes with stars in his eyes to make peace, there is a cynical businessman who might smile and say welcome, but meanwhile neglect to budge.
The exception to the rule is entrepreneurs. When their businesses are young, they are extraordinarily open to change: If anything they are eager to disrupt the status quo, because it makes more opportunities for them. If their personalities are disposed to change, like some serial entrepreneurs’ are, they will always be somewhat open. They are always building, not in one direction, but many.
People outside the business world paint businesspeople with a broad brush, especially in a time of rising sentiment against capitalism. But entrepreneurs are different from established businesses and corporations. Involving those calculated risk-takers in any intractable societal problems – I think, too, of guns in America — is crucial to solving them.
That doesn’t mean entrepreneurs are likely to be purely altruistic – they rarely are. But they less likely to be held back by vested interests. To create change, you need them.