A meeting between Israel’s army chief and a Palestinian millionaire reflects the PA’s loss of control

Bashar Masri, main investor of the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, poses for a portrait picture backdropped by apartment building under construction in Rawabi, West Bank, 24 February 2014. Rawabi is the first Palestinian planned city located between Ramallah and Nablus. The construction of the city with planned 10,000 homes began in 2010 and the first of the future 40,000 inhabitants are due to move in by the end of 2014. EPA /OLIVER WEIKEN

Adnan Abu Amer

Middle East Monitor  /  July 29, 2019

Official Palestinian-Israeli relations have been put on hold since 2014, but this didn’t stop Israel’s Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, from having a secret meeting with Palestinian millionaire Bashar Al-Masri in May. The two met in Ramallah and discussed the economic conditions in the occupied West Bank.

According to Israeli media, Kochavi and Al-Masri toured Rawabi City, founded in 2013 and built by the Palestinian businessman. It is the largest real estate project in Area C under Israeli control. Al-Masri offered his guest a summary of its development and asked him to pave a road between Ramallah and Rawabi, a development which has faced a lot of criticism from Palestinians. Some regard it as normalisation with the occupation state, whose officials have overseen the project; others view it as an example of escaping the reality of the occupation instead of confronting it.

Al-Masri is one of Palestine’s wealthiest businessmen. He has dual Palestinian and US citizenship, and is the Chairman of Masar International investment company, which owns 30 real estate, financial services, advertising and information technology companies around the world. As the initiator of the 2003 Siraj Investment Fund, the first Palestinian fund to invest in companies, Al-Masri is also a board member of the Palestine Development and Investment Company (PADICO), as well as An-Najah University in Nablus and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

I contacted Al-Masri for a comment about his meeting with Kochavi, but his office in Ramallah told me that he does not want the meeting to be discussed in the media. His staff did not explain why. This is odd, given that he did not participate in the Bahrain economic conference held on 25 and 26 June and insisted then that, “We will not work with any event outside the Palestinian national consensus.”

Bashar Al-Masri is a central figure in the Palestinian economy and his meeting with Kochavi may be a major part of Israel’s “economic peace” project, as it will encourage other meetings between Palestinian and Israeli businesses. This could increase their influence on Palestinian political decision-making and Israel could prefer them as a means to communicate with the Palestinian people instead of the leadership.

According to some people in Palestinian political circles, Al-Masri’s meeting is not his first, just the first to be made public. He has many regional and international relations, and whether or not the Palestinian Authority agrees with his meeting with Kochavi, he did not consult PA officials. This reflects a trend within Israel to bypass the Palestinian leadership and meet with other figures, such as businessmen, even if such meetings are limited to economic issues, not political, at least for the time being.

The Palestinian reaction to the Masri-Kochavi meeting varies from it being a means to find a political path towards the “deal of the century”, to part of Israel’s future arrangements for the post-Mahmoud Abbas era. Others see the meeting as simply business relations with Israel, like any and all services carried out through the Israeli Civil Administration in which the PA does not play a role. These meetings are ongoing and are unlikely to end because the next step in the Palestinian territories is to tackle the economy after the failure of political solutions.

Yet other Palestinians believe that such meetings are very dangerous and should be seen in the context of Israel’s arrangements for the Palestinian arena and reveal the extent of Israeli interference in Palestinian life. This raises questions about the role of the Palestinian leadership in everything that is happening. The PA has maintained its silence about the latest meeting, despite the fact that its purpose was to weaken the authority.

It is said that this is not the first time that Al-Masri has met with Israeli officials. On 14 December 2017, in fact, he met with former Knesset Member Erel Margalit, who is the chairman of technology investment fund Jerusalem Venture Partners. That meeting took place in Rawabi to develop the work of Palestinian technology companies.

A couple of years earlier, on 4 March 2015, Al-Masri announced that he had received a call from General Yoav Mordechai, the former coordinator of Israeli government operations in the occupied Palestinian territories. Mordechai told him that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed to connect Rawabi to the Israeli water network in order to allow Palestinian families to be housed there.

Even earlier, in September 2012, the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) National Committee condemned Al-Masri’s participation in the annual Israel Advanced Technology Industries conference held in Jerusalem, attended by Netanyahu and former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

We can see the Masri-Kochavi meeting as one of those held between Palestinian businessmen and the Israelis to solve problems. While these meetings are not arranged through the PA, the authority is likely be consulted on most occasions, at least for now. This may not happen if the PA is weakened further and the Israelis seek an alternative.

In May, a meeting between Palestinian businessmen and Israeli officials from the Civil Administration at the Ministry of Defence was held in Jericho. Also in May, Palestinian businessmen in Hebron organised a Ramadan fast-breaking meal with their Israeli counterparts. Most Palestinians were angered by such normalisation with the occupation. A similar event was hosted by the Israeli army’s Coordination and Liaison Administration at the Erez crossing for staff of the PA’s General Authority for Civil Affairs in Gaza. Palestinian activists condemned the event.

These meetings are all part of Israel’s carrot and stick approach proposed by former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman as a way to address Palestinians directly and draft a list of businessmen through whom Israel could bypass the PA. Israel has a website to deal directly with businessmen in occupied Palestine.

The aim is to provide economic benefits for Palestinian capitalists who seek greater control over political decision-making in Ramallah and support for links with the Israeli economy in preparation for the collapse of the PA. Netanyahu has long advocated “economic peace” which would allow Israel to maintain its control of the Palestinian economy with its cheap labour and raw materials.

In return, Palestinian businesses get permits to enter Israel, travel through Ben Gurion Airport and pass through military checkpoints in the West Bank instead of waiting for hours. There is talk of Israel issuing thousands of such permits. The owners of these businesses thus benefit personally, despite their violation of the national approach to boycott Israel. Officially, the PA refuses to engage in economic projects with Israel, but it turns a blind eye to the meetings, neither supporting nor opposing them.

Nevertheless, in 2016 Israeli businessman Rami Levy was able to establish the first Israeli-Palestinian supermarket near Ramallah. He also held a meeting in Jericho to develop the industrial area there and improve joint trade links.

The door will remain open for Palestinian-Israeli meetings, especially on economic and trade matters, as Palestinian business owners know that solutions for their problems have to start with Israel, and not with the Palestinian Authority. The PA cannot prevent these meetings even though some of the figures who meet with Israelis are either close to Fatah or protected by the movement. The meeting between Al-Masri and Kochavi is thus not only a model for Israel as it seeks to improve direct contacts with the Palestinians, but also a reflection of the PA’s loss of control in the occupied Palestinian territories.