At Davos, talk of Palestinian prosperity without freedom is ‘a charade’

Hebh Jamal

+972 Magazine  /  March 7, 2023

An outdated initiative for Israeli and Palestinian executives reflects the business world’s unwillingness to tackle the conflict’s root causes, say insiders.

In January, during the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in the Swiss town of Davos, Israeli and Palestinian business leaders met behind closed doors as part of the Breaking the Impasse (BTI) initiative. The meeting, which was inaccessible to journalists, included high-profile Israelis and Palestinians such as former Bank of Israel governor Karnit Flug and Bank of Palestine executives Hashim Shawa and Kamel Husseini. According to the agenda, those present discussed how “public and private diplomacy can keep the momentum of the two-state solution” going, and how to “jumpstart the Palestinian economy.” 

Inaugurated in 2013, the BTI is, according to its website, “not a political movement,” but rather the “manifestation of a sincere yearning for a durable two-state solution from the business leaders of Israel and the Palestinian territories.” But the initiative was condemned as “economic normalization” by the leadership of the BDS movement as soon as it was launched, and it does not appear to have overcome any of its structural flaws in the intervening decade. 

Indeed, at no point during its meeting in January, which focused on the economic wellbeing of Palestinians, did these influential figures discuss how Israeli apartheid and occupation infringe on the Palestinian economy. And from a series of conversations with sources close to the BTI, in addition to documents such as the agenda and attendee list, seen by +972, it is clear that the BTI’s normalization of the status quo and refusal to address more fundamental issues that would substantially improve Palestinians’ livelihoods make it deeply unfit for purpose. 

A source familiar with BTI proceedings, who asked to be kept anonymous, told +972 that the group’s meetings have no interest in ending the Israeli occupation. “Many people in these meetings seem to be driven by their own commercial interests rather than justice for the Palestinian people,” the source said. 

“These meetings are not effective at all and have no bearing on the political process,” they continued. “The whole idea of Davos and the BTI is that it’s an exclusive meeting of economic and political elites. It’s a charade, and every person with a bit of common sense knows that to be the case.”

‘Impartiality and neutrality’

The BTI’s composition is likely a factor in its refusal to engage with the deeper issues of the Palestinian struggle; as some of the individuals involved are directly complicit in upholding Israeli apartheid. Dorit Dor, for example, is the Chief Product and Technology Officer of Check Point Software Technologies, one of Israel’s largest companies, which sells internet security products across the world. In 2019, Dor was listed by Forbes as one of Israel’s 50 most powerful women. Prior to her foray into the private sector, however, she was a career cyber-spy who spent eight years in the Israeli military. She served in the elite intelligence unit 8200 and won the Israel National Defense Prize in 1993, awarded by the president to those who have made significant contributions to the defense of the state of Israel. 

Dor’s military connections seem to have been pivotal in her success in leading Check Point. In 2019, journalists Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson wrote an exposé on the company, revealing it to be closely intertwined with the Israeli military and security services. Like Dor, several of Check Point’s directors worked in cyber intelligence for the Israeli military before starting careers in the private sector. The company also works with some of Israel’s biggest arms companies, including drone manufacturer Israel Aerospace Industries. “Like other parts of Israel’s hi-tech sector, such as the companies making a profit out of Israel’s drone industry, Check Point profits from the incubator provided by the Israeli state’s repression of Palestinians,” wrote Egret and Anderson.

The BTI’s implicit pro-Israel bias appears to be true of the Davos meetings more generally. According to another source knowledgeable about the WEF, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity: “It is common to hear that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is ‘dear to the heart’ of the WEF’s chairman and founder Klaus Schwab, and that he has a personal interest in the conflict. But in reality, the WEF and Schwab are very much pro-Israel, and that bias is what controls the mechanics of the BTI.”

WEF has been accused of targeting Palestinians who criticize its approach, with many pointing to the case of Canadian-Palestinian businessman Khaled Sabawi. Sabawi, who was part of the WEF’s Young Global Leaders (YGL) forum, had his membership suspended indefinitely from the YGL community in September of last year. He believes his suspension was retribution for a letter he and other YGL members had sent to Schwab in March 2022, accusing WEF of being silent on Israel’s actions in Gaza the previous summer while expressing solidarity with Ukraine after Russia’s invasion of the country. 

For Sabawi, the Israeli assault on Gaza was personal: beyond being the son of refugees from the blockaded territory, his company, Open Screenplay, has an office there that was bombed in May 2021, resulting in four deaths and leaving employees traumatized. But in a private email to Sabawi, Schwab wrote that the YGL members’ letter was “deeply insulting” and “offensive,” calling Ukraine a “special case” that should not be compared to Israel-Palestine. Schwab went so far as to call the letter a “maliciously racist accusation,” and threatened to dissolve YGL. 

Instead of directly responding to an initial petition calling on the WEF to take a stand against Israel’s aggression, Schwab wrote an op-ed on the importance of remaining neutral in the face of international conflicts. “Impartiality and neutrality are enshrined in our charter as an international organization,” he wrote. “We also built it into all our governance rules, allowing people to associate with the Forum independent of their race, nationality, gender or political conviction, knowing that the purpose of the Forum is to improve the state of the world through dialogue and action-oriented collaboration.”

Months later, Sabawi was suspended indefinitely without receiving an explanation as to why. A WEF spokesperson, Wadia Ait Hamza, refused to offer one when challenged by Al-Jazeera, and denied that Sabawi’s suspension was connected to the letter. 

“In their act of silencing and targeting me, the WEF exposed their anti-Palestinian agenda: to push Schwab’s pet normalization project, which aims to make Israeli apartheid appear normal, while suppressing voices advocating for equal Palestinian human rights,” Sabawi told +972. 

 “Just consider the name, ‘Breaking the Impasse,’” he continued. “Which ‘impasse’ between Israel and the Palestinians is Schwab trying to break? Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and 13 human rights organizations in Israel itself refer to the relationship between Israel and Palestinians not as an ‘impasse’ but as ‘apartheid.’ This demonstrates that Schwab and the WEF leadership are going out of their way to obfuscate the reality on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territories and deny the realization of equal human rights.”

‘Making fools out of all of us’

The BTI’s flaws can be traced back to its origins. Founded in 2013, BTI meetings have taken place multiple times each year, with a main theme being “achieving normalization” according to insiders involved in closed-door meetings. Since the group’s inception, advancing a two-state solution has been one of its overarching goals, despite sharply decreasing support for this solution among both Israelis and Palestinians and its widely acknowledged failure to come to pass. To this end, in 2021, the BTI invited U.S. State Department Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to offer his vision on the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations and explore how his efforts can positively contribute to achieving a two-state solution. 

The BTI’s adherence to what many analysts consider to be an outdated framework for solving the Israel-Palestine issue should be seen in the context of the initiative’s rigid and unchanging structure. A source familiar with BTI proceedings, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, told +972 that the group has no obligation to publicize their findings or their progress. It is also not clear how members are chosen for the BTI or what qualifies them to speak on the region’s geopolitics. 

The source’s critique of the BTI is rooted in broader issues with the WEF. “The WEF gathers the world’s richest and most powerful people once a year under the banner of ‘improving the state of the world.’ But what is the WEF’s legitimacy? Only a few of these people have actually been elected through democratic mechanisms to represent the ‘world’ that the WEF claims to improve,” they said. 

Many agree with this assessment of the WEF. In January, The Guardian reported on the growing resentment toward the WEF’s archaic leadership style, with Schwab having run the forum for over 50 years. The article quoted a group of current and former WEF employees, who said: “In most organizations the next generation of top leadership is faintly visible at the higher levels of management, but at the WEF Klaus has surrounded himself with such a group of nobodies at the top that it’s hard to see how any of them could be taken seriously by anyone of consequence inside or outside the organization.”

The source added: “It’s all about connections in the end. None of these individuals [in the BTI] are real stakeholders, but the WEF knows this initiative isn’t of value, so they’re terrified of criticism and negative publicity and are unwilling to look inwards and see the deeply rooted problem.” 

Even former leaders of the BTI have been harshly critical. The initiative’s leadership typically comprises one Israeli and one Palestinian, and used to include the world’s richest Palestinian, Munib al-Masri, also known as the “Duke of Nablus.” But Al-Masri left the BTI because of its failure to have any substantial and lasting impact. “I hosted the BTI in my own home in Nablus and even went to DC in the hope of progress, but we got nowhere,” Al-Masri told +972

“We were wasting our time with this so-called peace process,” he continued. “The World Economic Forum unfortunately did not do a good job facilitating. It is clear that the Israelis involved did not want to challenge their own government, and the WEF was scared of doing anything of impact as well. The Israeli agenda has always been to strip Palestinians of all of their land, and this initiative was only making fools out of all of us involved. Breaking the Impasse is dead and has been for a long time.”

No employee came forward on the record to talk about the WEF’s handling of the BTI, nor did any spokespeople or members of the BTI respond to +972’s requests for comment. 

Hebh Jamal is a Palestinian-American journalist and advocate currently based in Germany