Nabeel Shaath, former deputy prime minister and minister of information for the Palestinian National Authority, has devoted decades of his life trying to establish peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Given the most recent escalations in this conflict, he says he has yet to reach that goal.

Speaking at the June 8-9 Wharton Global Alumni Forum in Istanbul, Shaath told his audience that building bridges is not just about communication, “but requires vision, genuine interest, patience and more patience. You must develop credibility and trust so that people know you will do what you say you will do. One of the most traumatic experiences for those who dedicate their lives to building bridges is seeing one of them crumble.” The only option, he added, “is to rebuild it.”

Palestinians seeking freedom and independence “are facing a power relationship which is out of balance from our point of view,” Shaath noted. “Yet you must concentrate on common ground and on developing joint interests with the other party.” In addition, he said, “in your efforts to build bridges with one another, you will find you need to build bridges inside. You will find yourself engaged in fierce negotiations with your own people. You must continue to do that. Building bridges to the world requires that you continue to build bridges inside your country.”

Prior to his political career, Shaath — who has an MBA from Wharton and a PhD in economics from the University of Pennsylvania — founded Team International, a professional management and consulting company, and the Arab Center for Administrative Development in Beirut and Cairo, which did training and consulting. “I am a Muslim Palestinian and I taught Jewish bankers from New York about investment banking,” he said with a smile. He received an honorary degree from the Penn law school for his work on trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has also started and directed “Arab Summer Computer Camps” — the first attempt to teach Arab children everywhere how to use computer technology, including robotics — and established the Arab world’s only publishing house for children.

No Alternative to Peace

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a case of two “classic victims,” Shaath said. “Israelis as Jews are victims of murder and crimes unparalleled in the 20th century. In their search for a homeland, they chose my country. That made us the victim’s victim. We have become two peoples in a struggle to find a home in one place, the holy land. That has galvanized the whole world in our conflict and almost pushed us into war several times. Our conflict has become a pretext for so many other conflicts in the area.”

When the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994, Shaath was its first minister of planning and international cooperation. His goal was to work with other countries and boost the area’s economy by signing a free trade agreement with its neighbors and with the U.S. and Canada, and establishing an association agreement with the EU, among other initiatives. “I was proud of the fact that we had become independent after the end of the Soviet era, and that we started with no debts to anybody. We depended totally on our private sector, and initially we did well, with 6% to 8% growth in GDP. In 2000, we celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ; 28 presidents came to Bethlehem and Jerusalem that year. At the same time, we moved from the holy in Bethlehem to the not-so-holy in Jericho, building a successful gambling casino.

“That experience has crumbled. Our struggle for freedom, independence and harmony has crumbled,” Shaath said. “In the last five years, we have gone back to confrontations. We could not agree on a permanent settlement. I sincerely desire to rebuild those bridges, but we are facing barriers of separation. Israel today is constructing a 796-kilometer wall around the Palestinian Territories in the West Bank. That is driving our people into bunkers and ghettos. Instead of the language of communication, the talk today is about unilateralism, which in effect denies the other side and forswears the process of looking for common ground.” Bridge building, he added, “taught me something about the limitations of brute military power. Military power is always a factor but not the only factor, and it cannot resolve problems for very long. One [side] cannot simply impose its will on weaker parties.”

The dreams of 1999 and 2000 “face a very hard time,” Shaath noted. “The Palestinians have lost half their income in the last three to four years. But if I am here today, it is because I still have a dream. I still think that rebuilding bridges is possible. Two thirds of the Israeli and Palestinian public think there is no alternative to peace. This is my source of hope. The people are sick and tired of violent conflict. They want to build bridges.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs a third party, Shaath said, to reactivate the peace process — similar to the role Norway played in brokering the 1993 Oslo Accords (which eventually failed to establish the peace process that both sides had sought). “We need a third party that doesn’t have an axe to grind and that can help us get back together. That is the only way, not just for the Arab-Israeli problem, but to avoid the clash of civilizations. We need to recreate a dialogue.”

Shaath acknowledged the difficulty of doing this, given that “the last election has produced a government [Hamas] that says it does not recognize Israel and a government in Israel that says it does not want to negotiate with the Palestinians but instead wants to go through unilateral negotiations. Looking for common ground requires that we both shed many of our wounds and fears. That is a very important part of getting back to peace.”

Asked by an audience member about the “failure on the Palestinian side” to trade with other Arab countries, Shaath noted that “the kind of regime imposed by the Palestinian-Israeli arrangement made trade very difficult, except to Israel or through Israel. And there were physical barriers as well. Because of security concerns, it was very difficult to get products into and out of Arab countries. We were trying to build an airport and a harbor, but the airport was heavily [fortified] by Israeli security and the harbor was never allowed to be rebuilt. So we are again dependent on narrow passages that physically allow trade.” Shaath said they also tried to develop high-tech and tourism industries, “but these require peace. You cannot succeed in promoting tourism without security.”

Both the Palestinians and the Israelis have to engage in internal bridge building,” Shaat said. “We must revive the idea of addressing the other. Turkey is one of the countries that is helping in this process. I think that opportunity is still there, and that the best bridge to build is the one to take us to a lasting peace in the Middle East.”