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Why I don’t have a photo with Shimon Peres
I first met the late Shimon Peres more than 12 years ago. Israeli disengagements on Gaza were just a theoretical construct under discussion then. I was there to find a way to privatize the peace process. The idea wasn’t mine, but that of Peres, so who better to talk to about it? He was then Minister of Development for Negev, Galilee and provided generous support a process we came to call the “Ankara Forum,” and effort to use connections of business to drown out the conflict. Peres’ support lasted throughout his Presidency.
I saw him many times in the last decade while working on this trilateral business cooperation project. I always enjoyed talking to him. He was history personified to me, larger than life. While talking about privatizing the peace process, you might easily find yourself talking about the importance of geography and connectivity for economic development, or border industrial estates as islands of excellence, with strong connections to the outer world. Then things could flow into the importance of path-breaking technological achievements for economic cooperation, and hence the important place of entrepreneurship on the road to peace. I always emerged from meetings with fresh ideas and plenty of notes, and if I had a practical problem on the ground, I know whose office I had to call first.
That is how the Ankara Forum for economic cooperation between Israel, Turkey and Palestine was formed. It is a coming together of the Turkish Chambers Union (TOBB), the Palestinian Chamber Federation and the Manufacturers Association of Israel. These three institutions were to develop and manage a border industrial estate in Palestine. The original project undertaken was the revitalization of Beit Hanoun (Erez) industrial estate in northern Gaza. It was a border estate that was operational before disengagement. The objective was to bring together all relevant parties, not to talk about the past, but to focus on the immediate future. It is about bringing water, electricity and designing a supply route to an actual industrial estate. These are all very technical issues, and that to me, was what privatizing the peace process was about – making a political conflict into a technical problem, then solving it one little piece at a time.
As far as I know, our effort was one of many pet topics of Shimon Peres. Privatizing the peace process, border estates, electricity supply, cement, cultural programs, imagining the future. Much of these projects failed, some of them – like ours – are still busily working away at the problem. Does this mean that Peres was naive? I don’t think so. He was a realist. I remember him saying that, “the problem of the Middle East is not economic but political. So the issue at hand requires a political solution not an economic one.” That’s not always easy for economists want to hear. “Yet,” he added, “economic progress can facilitate the political solutions by creating a more conducive environment.”
I also remember visiting at the time of tumultuous Turkish-Israeli relations during this last decade. He once said during that time that he prefers “Turks to walk proudly in the Arab Street” and that this would be beneficial for Israeli-Turkish relations. He was a great believer in cooperation between Israel and Turkey.
I feel rather privileged for having known Mr. Peres. I have seen him many times for more than a decade, had many chances to pick his brain and received his support for various projects. I just realized however, that I never had a photo taken with him. We always eagerly plunged into discussion at the beginnings of our meetings, and I was busy thinking about the implications of our discussions as our meetings came to an end, so I always forgot about getting a picture taken with him. “Next time, inshallah” I always said to myself. That’s my only regret.