by Sarah Kreimer
The taxi drove off, and I wondered if we had come to the right place. Footsteps crunching on gravel, we walked across an empty lot to a drab trailer, on which a fresh white sign with blue letters in Hebrew, Arabic and English declared: “Jordan River Border Terminal–Welcome to Israel.” The ridges of the Jordan Rift Valley towered on both sides of us. Here, along with Helmi Kittani, my co-director in running the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, and Ruth Dayan, founder of the Maskit network of handicrafts stores, ex-wife of former Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan and Center Board member, I awaited the arrival of the first Jordanian business delegation to Israel.
* * *
The idea of inviting the Jordanians was born half a year before, in July 1994, when Helmi, Ronit and I had crowded around a small black radio on the Center’s reception desk, listening to a live broadcast of a second ceremony on the White House lawn. The first had been the signing of the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in September 1993. This time, Israel and Jordan were signing a declaration to establish peaceful relations, making Jordan the second Arab country to recognize Israel and to open diplomatic ties.
“History is made when brave leaders find the power to escape the past and create a new future. Today two such leaders come together.” President Clinton paused for effect. Helmi and I looked at each other; his eyes were glistening. Like many Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, he had relatives living in Jordan. “On this morning of promise, these visionary statesmen from ancient lands have chosen to heal the rift that for too long has divided their peoples. On both sides of the River Jordan have lived generations of people who thought this day would never come.”
A dull pain had throbbed behind my eyes. Shuki, my late husband, was one of those people; I ached to call him and share his joy. Growing up on Kibbutz Afikim, whose fields ended at the Jordanian border, Shuki had spent many nights in bomb shelters. During Israel’s War of Independence, his sister, Yael, had been transported under cover of darkness with other kibbutz children over back roads to Haifa, to escape the advance of the Jordanian army. During the War of Attrition, terrorists would sneak across the Jordan River to carry out attacks in the kibbutzim and towns of the region. As an IDF soldier, Shuki’s brother, Moti, had crossed into Jordan to ambush these terrorists before they could cross into Israel.
Often, Shuki had wondered if there would ever be peace with this forbidden country that was so close. He had longed to meet a Jordanian civilian; to travel to Amman and Jerash, to explore the ancient city of Petra, carved into the red rock of the desert. Now, others would reach the lands on which he’d gazed all his life.
The next day, Lisa Fliegel, the relentlessly energetic journalist-organizer the Center had hired to coordinate our planned Middle East textile conference, bounced into the office with an idea. “Let’s put on our textile conference for Palestinians, Israelis, Egyptians and Jordanians!” proposed Lisa. “We’ll make history: we’ll be the first Israelis ever to host a Jordanian business delegation to Israel.”
Over the following months, Lisa had enlisted every leading businessman and woman related to the field of textiles and fashion in Israel to be involved in the Center’s Middle East extravaganza, “Weaving Peace.” Dan Catarivas, head of the new Middle East Department of the Israeli Ministry of Industry, was pulled into the vortex, bringing with him other key government officials. Egyptian textile companies we had met in Cairo at a European/Mid-East conference agreed to come; Lisa’s contacts in Jordan came through with the Al Hayat International Trading Company, run by a Palestinian entrepreneur living in Jordan, Mohammed Atiyeh, who worked with a woman business consultant, Ola el-Masri, to put together a delegation of the ten leading textile manufacturers in the country.
Our Palestinian colleagues, Abdel Fatah Darwish and Saeb Bamya, had organized an impressive Palestinian delegation from both the West Bank and Gaza, when Lisa came out with her next whopper. “Let’s have a fashion show! You know, with models and music and a runway, and they’ll show the latest designs from each country. It’ll get great publicity; it will make the conference an ‘item.'”
* * *
Now, shivering in the December rain, I thought of Shuki, growing up in the shadow of these Jordanian hills, from which enemy soldiers had shelled kibbutz fields in the valley. Had he been alive, he would have joined us here, excitedly awaiting the arrival of the first Jordanian business delegation to cross this bridge into Israel. But–in so many ways–Shuki had died too soon.
Now I stood, without him, in the raw and fickle December air. One moment, dark clouds gathered and we were drenched with rain. The next moment, the clouds broke and scattered, and the sun splashed the mountains on either side of us with clean light.
Suddenly, against an ominous blue-black sky, a rainbow appeared, arching over the valley. I pulled back my hood to enjoy its momentary glory. As light rain caught in my hair, I breathed the traditional blessing made upon seeing a rainbow: Baruch ata adonai…Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who remembers the covenant, is trustworthy in His covenant, and fulfills His word. The blessing recalls the first rainbow sent by God as a sign of His promise to Noah that He would never again destroy the world by flood:
“This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations. I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.”
Helmi, Ruth, Lisa and I stood together, rapt by the beauty shimmering above us, gratified that we were living in a time of receding floodwaters, of fresh covenants, of planting anew under hopeful skies. I hoped that not only God, but the Palestinians, the Jordanians, and our own government as well, would remember their agreements for generations to come. I prayed that the blessings of these days would not be as transitory as the rainbow, which even now faded into the darkening sky.
The Nazarene Tours bus we had ordered to pick up the delegation pulled into the lot beside us. From the trailer, someone called out, and we turned to see a Jordanian bus dropping off a group of about 20 dignified, well-dressed people, who began walking the 100 meters over the bridge, rolling their voluminous luggage toward the Israeli side of the border. I picked out Ola immediately–a slim, dark-haired woman in spike heels, who walked with the assurance of one who is accustomed to getting her way with people. Although none of us had met before, after weeks of frantic phone calls, battling bureaucracies, overcoming official and unofficial obstacles, coordinating what to say and not to say to the media, we felt like we were reconnecting with long-lost friends. One by one, we introduced ourselves with warm handshakes and ritual kisses on both cheeks.
Inside the trailer, the Jordanians opened their huge suitcases of samples for the Weaving Peace Exhibition; the Israeli customs agent shook his head.
“This is a tourist crossing. We have no customs regulations; no merchandise can cross here.”
Knowing that the economic protocols to the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement hadn’t yet been signed, Dan Catarivas’s representative, sent to iron out these issues, took the official aside. I watched while they argued and conferred, placing a few key phone calls. Soon, with promises to display–but not to sell–their wares, the Jordanians crossed into Israel and boarded the Nazarene Tours bus.
Riding south through the Jordan valley, we talked incessantly, trying to piece together pictures of life “on the other side.” I sat next to Ra’ed, a tall, impeccably dressed manufacturer of denim fabric. As we neared Jericho, Ra’ed, peering out the window, remarked in British-accented English, “We must be nearing Jerusalem.”
“Yes, how did you know?” I asked, surprised.
“I have agricultural land in the Jordan valley. The color of the earth changes in the central region–in the area between Amman and Jerusalem.”
Indeed, the two sides of the Jordan River were once joined in one land mass. Millions of years ago, the earth’s tectonic plates had shifted; the crevasse that opened between them–stretching from Syria to Africa–became the route of the Jordan River and the lowest spot on earth.
Once again, I realized how close we are to one another, and how artificial the boundaries. Just hours before, waiting in the rain, Ruth Dayan had told us of traveling the region with her father before the founding of Israel in 1948, when the borders were open; and trains ran freely from Damascus to Haifa to Cairo–on rail lines built to serve first the Ottoman, then the British, empire.
After a two-hour drive, we pulled up to the Hyatt Hotel in Jerusalem to find Haim, our public relations man, arguing heatedly on the phone with the chief of police for the Jerusalem district: “What do you mean it is illegal to display the Palestinian flag in Jerusalem; Israel already signed a peace agreement with the PLO last year?!…The agreement doesn’t allow Palestinian Authority presence in Jerusalem? Do you know what I had to go to, to get this flag in the first place; you can’t find them in this country!…No, we can’t display the Egyptian, the Jordanian and the Israeli flag and just forget the Palestinian flag… Yes… yes… OK, I can do that. Thank you.”
Haim turned to us with a grin. “He said there are no clear regulations about displaying the Palestinian flag in Jerusalem, so the police are not going to confiscate it. But if anybody ever asks us–we never talked to the chief of police.”
“Weaving Peace” erupted into a full-blown festival, orchestrated by an ecstatic Lisa Fliegel, who never stopped moving–introducing people, providing materials, arranging interviews. Conference sessions highlighted economic trends in the regional textile industries. During breaks, portly men held smoky conversation about labor rates in Amman and restaurants in Tel Aviv. Hundreds of businesspeople packed into the product exhibition, fingering Jordanian denim jeans, Israeli wool-blend suits sewn in Gaza, and Egyptian cotton fabric.
The conference climaxed in the evening’s vaunted fashion show. A hush fell over the hall of 400 people as the lights dimmed. Suddenly, rock music blared out, and spotlights played over the crowd, coming to rest on three glamorous dark-eyed models strutting up the runway in designer dresses fashioned from flowing embroidered Bedouin gowns. Male models stepped out in sleek men’s suits, striding and turning in time with the heavy beat. For the finale, the crowd exploded in applause and laughter, as Israel’s Minister of Economy and Trade, Shimon Sheetrit, was invited onstage to shake hands with a fashion model dressed in designer army fatigues and a keffiyeh to mimic Yasser Arafat. When the lights went on, I looked around to see a room buzzing with hundreds of Jordanians, Israelis, Egyptians and Palestinians–talking, joking and drinking together, swept up in the energy generated by the show.
* * *
Over the coming months, the Center organized three more Middle East business conferences: The Borderless World for software companies, Plasto-Peace for the plastics industry, and a major food industry fair, A Taste of Peace. Israeli companies eagerly followed up the contacts made through the conferences. After years of maneuvering around the Arab boycott–lifted following the Oslo accords–they felt suddenly free, and were excited to forge ahead, spurred by a growing vision of the “New Middle East,” and by the whiff of new markets, new capital, new labor forces, as well as incentives for joint ventures–from the European Union and the United States.
Jordanian businesspeople, on the other hand, were more circumspect. They struggled, both individually and in their society, between economic interests and historical pain. A majority of the Jordanian population is Palestinian–families of refugees from the war of 1948; and Palestinians make up a disproportionately high percentage of the business community. Intense popular opposition accompanied the Jordanian government’s signing of the peace agreement with Israel, which was still seen as a country born out of dispossession of the Palestinian people. While we Israelis saw the expanding network of connections as part of the “dividends of peace,” most Jordanians saw it as a despised tatbiyeh: “normalization” of relations with a country which continued to subject Palestinian cousins, brothers and sisters to Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and discrimination within Israel proper.
In addition, entrenched interests in Jordan, as well as in Egypt, feared being swamped by Israel’s booming economy. While Israel’s 5.3 million people were dwarfed by Egypt’s galloping population of over 60 million, Israel’s economy had grown to roughly the size of Egypt’s–each with a GDP of about $100 billion.
When Israeli companies’ initial attempts to build on the introductions to the Jordanian companies floundered, they realized they needed help in brokering the connections and requested that Helmi accompany them to Amman to continue their business explorations. When he entered Jordan, Helmi felt that he was in a place both new and familiar. Although he had never visited the country before, he had family in Jordan–cousins, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, whom he had met over the years in the West Bank. Instinctively, he understood the dual codes of conduct, and was able to traverse the worlds. He was able to defuse cultural and political landmines–whether it was an Israeli offering a sub-contracting arrangement that hurt the pride of an independent Jordanian textile company, or a Jordanian making a misguided comment. The Israeli businesspeople felt that he was Israeli; the Jordanians saw him as Arab. His ease in negotiating the cultures of the Middle East, and in helping forge joint business ventures, vindicated our original hypothesis in expanding the Center’s work to the international arena: that Arab Israelis can catalyze Middle East business.
* * *
The opening of borders in the Middle East opened mental borders within Israel, as well. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism joined the Center’s initiative to support a growing number of bed-and-breakfast inns, starting up in the Arab villages of the Galilee. Jewish families from Tel Aviv began to vacation, not only in kibbutz guest houses, but in the homes of Arab families in Coucab, in Sakhnin, in Arrabe. Other government ministries began to address long-invisible problems, working to equalize regulations and budgets, so that National Insurance payments, and federal allocations to municipalities, would be provided at similar, sometimes equal, rates to Arab and Jewish citizens.
High-tech Arab Israeli entrepreneur Imad Younis once again applied for a research & development grant from the Israeli government. This time, he received it. In order to qualify for the maximum grant, however, Alpha Omega needed to be in a Priority Development Zone, as defined by the Ministry of Industry. Despite its high rate of unemployment and its status as the largest Arab city in Israel, Nazareth was still not designated as a Priority Zone. So, Alpha Omega moved to the Industrial Zone of the neighboring Jewish town, Upper Nazareth, next door to the Business Incubator from which he had been rejected five years earlier–purportedly, because he had no Russian immigrants on his team.
I visited Imad in Alpha Omega’s new home. Bright and spacious, the new facility allowed, for the first time, a separate office for the CEO. As he took me around to meet the staff, Imad grinned. “I want to introduce you to our newest engineers–Vladimir and Alex.”
As Alpha Omega grew and sought to hire engineers, it attracted some of the new Russian immigrants who struggled, often unsuccessfully, to be accepted into Israel’s mainstream high-tech firms. Ironically, Alpha Omega fulfilled exactly the criterion on which he had been rejected from the incubator, becoming perhaps the most ethnically integrated technology business in the Galilee.
* * *
On May 4, 1995, I stood once again on the edge of the Syrian-African Rift, overlooking the Sea of Galilee and beyond to the hills of Jordan and Syria. It was Israel’s 47th Independence Day, and I had come with my sons, Liad and Shai, to Kibbutz Kinneret to celebrate with Shuki’s sister, Yael, and her family.
Actually, we had come the day before to commemorate Shuki’s first yahrzeit. Standing among gravestones in the kibbutz cemetery, in the heavy Jordan Valley heat, I smelled the dry earth and fertilizer; and suddenly time collapsed. I couldn’t grasp the concept of a year.
A year: the difference between being alive and dead. The difference between borders being closed and open. 365 days of changing diapers. For Liad, the year was a lifetime. Now he was two: he was walking; he could talk. I looked down at him with his strawberry blond hair tousled–toddling around so serious and so confused.
Just over a year ago, Shuki had found a baby bird on the sidewalk and brought it home. He’d nursed it with milk and bread, and kept it in a box, and taught it how to fly from his finger in the living room. One evening, he’d put the box outside the window, and in the morning, the bird was gone. I always imagined it had flown away.
I missed Shuki so desperately, so helplessly. Nothing I could do would bring him back. He had not lived to see peace with Jordan. I would not reach the promise of a life-long partnership with the father of my children.
* * *
Now, it was time to shed the mourning and celebrate. Together with the members of Kibbutz Kinneret, we milled around on a grassy knoll. Long tables were set with blue and white paper cloths; plastic chairs crowded alongside. Colored lights winked on above them as the sun set, signaling the start of Yom Ha’Atzmaut: Independence Day. Before digging into the food, hundreds of children, parents, grandparents fell silent. Together, they stood to sing the national anthem, Hatikva–The Hope. Alongside kibbutzniks who had fought battles with Jordanian and Syrian soldiers, who had tilled fields under fear of firing from the Golan, I sang.
“Our hope will not be lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem”.
Holding Liad’s and Shai’s small hands, I let go of the ambivalence I often felt in singing those lines, knowing that our hope was realized at the price of the Palestinians’ loss of hope. Now, as a new fabric of agreements and relations was being woven, Israel was becoming more fully–a free nation in our land. Free of isolation, free of the threat of war, free of our own occupation of 3 million Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza, which sapped our political and moral resources. After years of wandering in a political desert, Israel was moving toward a vision of the Promised Land with which I could identify: a Jewish homeland making peace with its neighbors and reconciling its relations with its own Arab citizens, so that they, too, could be active partners in shaping the nation.
I felt proud to be Israeli. I felt proud to be adding my energy and skills to the huge efforts of our nation’s leaders, who were taking significant risks to move our country to peace. Looking down at Shai and Li’ad, I felt proud to be raising them, albeit alone, in this society that was pursuing a difficult path of justice and hope.
It is now almost two decades later, and we are about to celebrate Israel’s 66th Independence Day–with neither the sense of hope nor of justice of those complex and vibrant days of 1995. John Kerry has stopped struggling to keep a moribund process of negotiations going between weak Palestinian leaders and an Israeli government committed to obfuscation. In the meantime, we, Israelis, continue as an occupying power over 2.5 million Palestinians on the West Bank; and continue to control the conditions of 1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. They fire sporadic missile barrages into the kibbutzim and cities of the Western Negev. On the other side of the Syrian-African Rift, a vicious civil war has claimed the lives of over 100,000 Syrians.
Together with the bleakness, or maybe because of the bleakness, it is important to remember. Usually, when Israelis talk of remembering, we are recalling–or more to the point, urging others to recall–the disasters of our history, especially the Holocaust. But I would like to take this moment to recall the courage and the beauty, and yes, the benefits and costs of Israel’s zigzag pursuit of reconciliation.
Our pursuit is not always vigorous or honest. But the agreements we have reached with our neighbors have held–through the heady Arab Spring and its muddy Winter. These agreements have brought us security, diplomatic dividends and economic prosperity. And pride in ourselves.
I do not know if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will continue; or if they will lead anywhere. But I do know that we will be better off if we continue an honest pursuit to resolve our conflict with the Palestinians. There are concrete steps we can take now, remembering that most of the bargaining cards are in our hands. It is time to play them–wisely and seriously.
Sarah Kreimer is a veteran Israeli social activist, living in Jerusalem with her two sons, and working as a strategic consultant. This article is an adaptation of a chapter of her recently completed book, Vision and Division in Israel.