"Let's do business in Gaza"

Shlomi Fogel Photo: Ziv Yehoash

Businessman Shlomi Fogel sees an opportunity for Israelis and Arabs to join together to provide jobs for Gazans.

The business operations of Israel's Shlomi Fogel, who always operates with partners, span the globe. He concentrates on the Middle East and Persian Gulf, and his interests include ownership of Ampa, Israel Shipyards, Gold Bond and many real estate ventures. Fogel is now calling on Israeli businessmen to put the West Bank off to one side, and focus their attentions on the Gaza Strip, which he says is more important. He wants Israelis, Egyptians Qataris, Palestinians, Gazans, Jordanians, and others from Arab countries best left unnamed at this stage to start joint business ventures in the Gaza Strip. He wants 5-6 industrial zones and a free trade zone along the fence on the Israeli side. "Believe me, they'll all do well from it," he says.

What about the politicians? "They'll come after the businesses," he answers confidently. He wants all this done now in order to take advantage of a rare historical opportunity in the region when Israel is no longer the focus of conflicts and wars.

The distrustful? The skeptics? Fogel is an indefatigable researcher. Listen to what he has learned and what he is relying on. Try read between the lines to deduce what his Arab and international interests are that he has been careful to conceal for so many years. Because after all, he is a businessman for whom the bottom line is what counts, and who bears the burden of proof.

"Globes": Let start out by asking whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom you have been associated, and for whom the nations of the world are trying to schedule a meeting with Mahmoud "Abu Mazen" Abbas, is aware of your idea, and whether he supports it.

Fogel: "I say what I think, and I don't want to name anyone other than myself right now, either from here or there. All these ideas are ideas that I and quite a few businessmen are talking about them. I've been studying this for a long time already, together with Israeli, Jordanian, Egyptian, Palestinian, and Gazan businessmen. At the same time, I very much hope that the prime minister and the political leadership will read, listen, consider, and take it forward."

Gaza first

So it is Gaza first, not Mahmoud Abbas?

"Yes, exactly. Here's the main reason for this idea. When I analyzed and made a distinction between the Gaza economy and the West Bank economy, I discovered the following facts: the annual per capita GDP on the West Bank is $6,500, compared with $4,500 in Jordan, $1,800 in Egypt, recently doubled to $3,600. In Gaza, it's $800. Now start thinking about the real economy, and you're realize that the main problem is going to be the Gaza Strip. With barely $800 per capita GDP, there's no doubt that two million people in the Gaza Strip will try again and again to shake the tree and disturb Israel, where per capita GDP is $37,000."

But the Hamas leadership is busy arming itself for the next war.

"People in Gaza have nothing to lose. A person who has nothing, nothing to do, no work, no home, no living, and no movie house will only become worse and more violent, because he has nothing to lose. At the same time, let's talk about the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, and you'll realize that we absolutely must not go ahead there. It's dangerous for us."

It is dangerous and forbidden to make progress in talks with Mahmoud Abbas?

"Exactly. Let's say that tomorrow morning, we give Abu Mazen a state. I've no doubt, and neither does any other reasonable person, that a large proportion of the refugees, first of all from Syria and Iraq, those who are begging to get out of there and are swamping Turkey and Europe, will start flowing into the West Bank, and there's no doubt that they'll fill it up."

Why are they not going there now?

"They can't. We aren't letting them. Israel is not allowing them passage. But if we give Abu Mazen a country tomorrow, there's no doubt that within a very short time, we'll find another 1-1.5 million refugees coming to live near us, and also in Rehovot and Jerusalem."

Is that good or bad?

"It's very bad."

Tell us more about your idea about the Gaza Strip

"When I analyze the general situation here in the Middle East, one thing's clear to me: if he gets the chance, Abu Mazen will issue a clarion call to people in the refugee camps in the Arab countries, for example the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, where 600,000-700,000 Syrians, Iraqis, and Palestinians live. If he just announces that anyone of Palestinian origin, someone with a grandfather, grandmother, mother, uncle, or aunt who calls himself a Palestinian, has the right of return and entry to a Palestinian state, they'll all rush to get in - mainly because the gaps in per capita GDP promise a better life, at least for their children. They're living now in tents in Jordan. I went around there and saw the place, which isn't the most enjoyable place in the world. Even the Gaza Strip is several levels higher than the way they're living in Zaatari."

Are war casualties from Syria and Iraq going there.

"They're going there from everywhere. As soon as someone declares a Palestinian affiliation on the loudspeaker, they'll all fold their tents. They'll say they have an affiliation, and start moving in our direction. There's no doubt that the economic situation is the strongest motivation that makes people risk their lives, run towards Europe, cross hostile borders, board leaky boats and cross the seas. There shouldn't be any doubt that many will go to the West Bank as soon as there's a state there. So when you analyze the situation as I see it, you find that we have to take care of Gaza first. We have to help get Gaza for its people."

And what about the West Bank in the meanwhile? The whole world is pressing for a settlement with the Palestinian Authority.

"Right now, the West Bank is making economic progress, and will continue to make economic progress. It's not at all relevant to us right now. The PA is developing faster than the entire Arab world, faster than all the countries surrounding us. People are getting along there. In Gaza, they're not getting along, and that's why the situation is the way it is, and that's why it has to be addressed first."

"We have to be wise"

You say you support two states for two peoples. What happens with the other state in this formula?

"It's the right principle, but we can't give Abu Mazen a country right now. It's absolutely unacceptable. We have to be wise and see what's happening in the Middle East, and after we find the solution there, go on to the West Bank. But a solution for Gaza must come first."

Don't Putin, Obama, and the French know this?

"I don't know. I'm saying what I say. I'm sure that some people don't agree with me, even Israelis don't agree with me, but there's no doubt that it's what's going to happen. I traveled around these places a lot. I see what's happening in the Arab world. I hear understanding of this matter."

With whom are you talking?

"I talk with heads of state and businessmen in various countries. Yes, in Arab countries, too. Some of them are unaware of this economic situation, of what could happen. But when you put all the figures on the table for them, they all realize what will happen. They understand that there will be a massive flow of people to the West Bank, to the Palestinian state, of Palestinians and non-Palestinians. That's what will happen. We must therefore be wise now, explain this to the world, because it's critical for us: critical for our lives and critical for the region."

Do you expect Netanyahu to tell world leaders that as long as disturbances prevail in the Middle East, as long as there are economic problems and millions of refugees wandering from place to place, there will be no settlement between Israel and the PA?

"Yes, that's what I'm saying. I'm saying it, and I'll go on saying it those world leaders: "People, let's first show that we know how to solve the problem with Gaza, and then we'll see."

What chance is there that anyone will listen, that the Arab world will not exert pressure in the opposite direction?

"The Arab world is sick and tired of the Palestinians. They have been an albatross around their necks for 68 years. The Palestinians are not what people are talking about in the Arab world right now, despite the joint photos and kisses. The only country willing to do something for them is Qatar, for their own reasons."

Are you talking about the Arabs in the West Bank or the Arabs in the Gaza Strip?

"All of them. The Arab world's interest in the Palestinians has declined. It doesn't interest them. Every Arab country and every Arab people has its own troubles. The problems are difficult and weighty - problems of survival. Look at what's happening in Egypt, at the huge efforts Abed el-Sisi is making to create an economy and bring about a situation in which people can earn an respectable living, and it's still not working. It's very, very difficult, despite the massive international support he's getting. Read the blogs in the Arab world, in Saudi Arabia, not to mention the countries at war - Syria and Iraq."

"All anyone can lose is money"

Can you read Arabic?

"I can't, but people translate the information for me. I know what's happening in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, where people are starting to realize that the economy talks, that they can't go on any longer the way they have been. This is exactly the development and momentum that I want to take advantage of. I call on all of us, and first of all to the Israelis: grab the opportunity for their good and ours. After all, I really don't see our very talented people in the army coming up with a solution, other than a military solution. An economic solution that's the right direction, but it requires thinking out of the box and courage, and what have we got to lose? It won't kill anybody. All anyone can lose is money."

Why is the civilian economy in Gaza our problem?

"Because we're part of Gaza's problem. Because there are two million men, women and children on our southern border barely staying alive on $800 a year. Because the borders of the Gaza Strip are with Israel and Egypt. It's obvious that the Egyptians have to play ball. When we find the solution of how to work with Gaza, and we have plans, including those I've prepared, when we find the way to work together with them, with the Egyptians and the Gazans, we'll also see what's happening around us, and decide how to go on to the West Bank."

When you say Gaza first, what are you talking about? Economic agreements? A non-aggression pact? Peace and love?

"All the processes we want to lead right now are only economic and business processes of businessmen. But everyone knows very well, we've all studied world history, that economic processes can cause political processes at a later time after we solve the security problem. So I say if we, if the group of businessmen, Palestinians from Gaza and Ramallah, Egypt, and Israel, sit together, go in the direction of an orderly plan for reconstruction of northern Sinai and reconstruction in Gaza, it will be a giant step forward."

Northern Sinai

"Egypt has a border with Gaza. They're partners in this, and they also have to get something out of it. They all need to get something, otherwise it won't move."

You talk about a 'group of businessmen'. Is there such a group?

"Yes."

Who are they?

"A group, groups."

Israelis?

"Not only Israelis, also Arabs."

Are the Arabs Palestinians? Jordanians? Egyptians?

"They also, but also people from Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Qatar."

Is nobody killing people in those groups?

"No one's killing people yet. It's true that people don't know about them yet. We're a fairly small group. I'm trying to appeal to young people in the Arab world and among us, to recruit them to us, so that we can work together. We have a single common interest - to improve the standard of living, the level of income, to provide better education. That's an interest common to all people, and of the people in question. The facts speak for themselves: businessmen can do more than politicians right now. It's not government versus government; it's business to business."

Don't talk to Haniyeh

Gaza is ruled by Hamas, led by Ismail Haniyeh. Are you going to talk to him? Maybe you expect Netanyahu to talk to him?

"No, I certainly don't expect Netanyahu to talk to Haniyeh. He's what's called persona non grata, with the official status of an undesirable. All of Hamas is. We have no chance of talking to each other, but there are two million people in front of us, some of whom, if not all of them, are looking for something to do and how to make a living in order to feed their families. I'm talking as a businessman. I'm not a politician and not a statesman. I'm a man who deals in business, and I say that we have to give them the chance to make a respectable living, because we have to neutralize this bomb named Gaza, and economics is the right way, and probably the only way."

How? Where?

"One of the plans is a free trade area near the fence on the Israeli side what used to be the Erez border crossing before it was all burnt down, finished off, erased, and destroyed. It involves the construction of six industrial zones next to the fence, which will easily directly create 50,000-60,000 jobs. I'm already initiating such a zone now near the fence in our area. The Gazans, the Gazan government, can of course build their own industries on the other side. The industries will obviously have ports for importing goods, exporting, trading. El Arish Port, Ashdod Port, maybe also Eilat Port, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. If they behave reasonably, I'm sure they can use them for their own benefit."

How do you have a free trade area on such a violent border?

"It will be on the Israeli side, with Israeli security. Residents of Gaza will be employed there, maybe also residents of the PA, the West Bank. They'll all come to work, because they're starving for work. The investors will be private individuals through large international companies. They can insure the security risks, and the world's countries will provide aid for it."

Will you put your own money into it?

"Of course. I've already put a lot of my money into a free trade zone in Jordan. We're developing an industrial zone in which 400 people are working right now, mainly Jordanians. I expect more Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, Arab, and even non-Arab businessmen."

What labor laws will there be in the industrial zones on the Gazan border?

"All the Israeli labor laws, because it's on the Israeli side."

Do you know people willing to invest in industrial zones along the Israel-Gaza fence?

"Yes, certainly, Palestinians are also willing. There are Palestinian businessmen who are unwilling to invest in the West Bank, but if an investment in Gaza is organized, they'll be willing to invest."

Why should they invest in Gaza and not in the West Bank?

"Because the problem is that money sent to the West Bank doesn't always get to where it's supposed to. It gets lost on the way."

"It will get to exactly the right place in Gaza?

"The investments will be on the Israeli side of the fence in a zone defined and declared as a free trade zone. The money will get to its destination."

"Egypt will also join"

Are there already concrete ideas?

"Yes, but it's not right yet to spell them out. Just think: if we tell the Egyptian government, for example, that with money and the world's support, as part of an overall regional plan, it will be able to develop a deep seaport at El Arish and an airport at El Arish, won't they jump at it?"

Egypt is in a very deep economic crisis.

"As soon as Egypt wants to raise money from the world to build infrastructure, they'll have money - as much as they need."

A $12 billion agreement between the International Monetary Fund and the Egyptian government was recently reported. Is that what you mean?

"No, I mean additional investments. For example, the Saudi Arabian government is interested in helping to develop Sinai. It can also invest in and develop the El Arish Port."

You do not mention a port in Gaza.

"No. We're talking about a seaport and airport in Egypt in El Arish. Egypt is a critical factor. In order to make progress in the big plan, from which people in Gaza will also benefit, and we'll all benefit, Egypt first of all has to improve its situation in northern Sinai. They have to marginalize radical Islam; they have to create an economy and jobs in Sinai, too. You can't control using only a stick; you have to create carrots - economic life. The Egyptians are planning to develop northern Sinai. Just now, the Saudi Arabians have become the first to start pouring in money, the first $150 million to Egypt, in order to start reconstruction in northern Sinai. One of the ideas is an airport in El Arish, tourism at Lake Bardawil, on the Sinai beaches, and Sharm el-Sheikh.

"The Egyptians know that if they get rid of the crazies, most of whom are roaming northern Sinai, they can race forward, and we and the Gazans will be together with them. It has to be a regional system. Because Egypt controls security in northern Sinai, however, it must first move the economy forward by itself, together with us."

Who is "us"?

"Israeli, Palestinian, and other businessmen, who are talking and saying, 'Let's see how we cooperate in developing northern Sinai and Gaza.' The emerging idea is that Gaza will get a certain package, Egypt will get a certain package, and we'll get quiet, because that's what we want."

You can put money into Gaza, like Qatar is doing, but only God knows they're doing with it.

"It's not like that. Qatar is sending money to Gaza, and as far as I know, and I can tell you it's information I have, they're not giving the money for terrorism or hostile activity. Qatar is building for civilians, there are clear pictures of what they're doing there, roads, universities, schools. They're investing a great deal of money there. It's the economic branch of the Qatar government, which has decided to help their brothers in Gaza."

Help their brothers in Gaza?

"Qatar is a small country. They want to be involved everywhere in the Middle East. You can see them in Lebanon, but they're also involved in the Islamic State. Right now, they're the only ones pushing the economic, housing, and construction in Gaza. How do we know? I believe our systems know how to check these things out. It's a fact that we're letting them do it. It just shows that they're checking and seeing that this money is getting to the right places."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on October 9, 2016

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2016

Shlomi Fogel Photo: Ziv Yehoash
Shlomi Fogel Photo: Ziv Yehoash
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