On November 13, 2007, President Abdullah Gül of Turkey, President Shimon Peres of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) of the Palestinian Authority (PA) came together as part of the Ankara Forum activities, a tripartite gathering of Turkish, Israeli and Palestinian businessmen and government officials. United by a determination to see our three peoples cooperate on a project which will greatly benefit the Palestinian people, they had come to sign an agreement to go ahead with a new trilateral industrial estate project on the West Bank. For the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) and our colleagues at the Unions of Chambers of Commerce and Industry in all three countries, the occasion marked the culmination of several years of hard work and the start of a new phase - that of turning a dream into practical reality.
The Ankara meeting was the latest instance of Turkey's - and in this case, specifically its business community's - determination to help in the quest for peace in the Middle East. Turkey regards itself as a true and firm friend of both Israel and the Palestinians, and Turkish foreign policy has repeatedly tried to bring the two sides closer.
One of the obstacles, of course, is that diplomats may come together to draft the agreements, but those agreements will not work unless underlying pre-conditions are in place. There are some good political initiatives in the Middle East to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as the Arab Peace Initiative. However, these initiatives by themselves are not enough to achieve a lasting peace. It is also important to build Palestinian capacity and institutions of governance. Since statehood is more than territory, the facts on the ground must not contradict the process of state-building, but instead enhance it economically. In other words, as the president of the Israeli Manufacturers' Association once said: There is a need to privatize the peace process.
With this in mind, the Turkish private sector started its TOBB-BIS initiative (TOBB: the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey; BIS: Industry for Peace), with the aim of creating more jobs and greater prosperity for ordinary Palestinians. Turkish diplomacy and international initiatives increasingly focus on practical steps and concrete projects. This is where the Ankara Forum, which has been meeting at regular intervals in the three countries since April 2005, comes into the picture.
Turkey's approach has a unique dimension based on our country's success in establishing industries over the last four decades. The concept behind the project is relatively simple. One of the key tools used in building an industrial economy in Turkey was the use of organized industrial zones, providing infrastructure and facilities for fledgling industries in relatively undeveloped areas. Turkish businessmen, who trade and invest actively with both their Arab and Israeli neighbors, believe that trade, investment and employment are the keys to overcoming the poverty and underdevelopment which are among the main causes of endemic instability and conflict. In particular, they share the international community's aspiration to do something for the Palestinian people and show that there is a way forward to prosperity and security for them. Improving the living standards of the Palestinians is an essential part of the peace process.
Furthermore, the zones will contribute greatly to capacity-building for the Palestinian people, creating and training new executives, giving them international perspectives and business linkages which they do not currently possess. Turning the Arab Peace Initiative and other initiatives into reality will be very hard to achieve without institutional capacity-building in Palestine.
How will the TOBB-BIS project contribute to capacity-building? The original hope, one that remains a long-term ambition, was to create a new industrial estate at Erez, on Gaza's border with Israel. The new estate would replace the one transferred to the PA at the time of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005. It would offer employment to around 10,000 Gazans. In January 2006, the Turkish and Palestinian foreign ministers and the Turkish and Israeli foreign ministers signed memoranda of understanding. Backed by the business leaders of all three countries, the TOBB-BIS management company was established.
The immediate goal now, however, is to build an industrial zone on the West Bank in the small town of Tarkumiya, near Hebron. Unlike Gaza, where there was a vacant site ready-made for the project, the Tarkumiya site will have to be designed and agreed upon from scratch. As in Gaza, the goal at Tarkumiya remains an industrial estate where investor companies from Turkey and other countries will develop labor-intensive sectors. The products will then be exported to markets in the United States and elsewhere.
The necessary preliminaries at this stage, mapped out at the November 13 meeting of the Ankara Forum, are agreements with the Palestinians on the details of the duties, rights and obligations of the company in charge of developing the estate, and with the Israelis on the implementation of security and trade facilitation measures. These talks took place against the backdrop of the latest efforts to achieve an overall peace in the Middle East - the Annapolis conference in late November, where the Arab world was also represented. Though not directly part of this process, the Turkish initiative to create a Palestinian industrial zone both benefited from and contributed to a more cooperative spirit in the region.
What happens next? TOBB-BIS is now at work on a feasibility assessment which will be used to support its application to the PA for a license to operate as a developer/manager in the Palestinian territories. It is asking for "one-stop-shop" status as the developer company.
With these preliminaries completed, work will go ahead on building the on-site infrastructure of the estate, along with the off-site infrastructure and utilities. Part of the production facilities will be constructed by TOBB-BIS, while investors will also have the option to rent the land and build their own facilities.
After that comes the work of attracting investors. Here TOBB-BIS enjoys a substantial advantage. As all Turkish companies are members of TOBB, companies likely to be interested in helping develop and invest in the Tarkumiya Industrial Estate are well aware of the work of the Ankara Forum. Moreover, these industrial companies are currently riding the crest of Turkey's buoyant economic performance during the last five or six years. Furthermore, while an investment in the West Bank presents challenges, it also offers exciting opportunities to companies wanting to position themselves better in the Middle East and benefit from the chance to gain access to U.S. and Arab markets duty-free.
Initial investments will come from Turkish companies, but once the project reaches the necessary initial critical mass, TOBB-BIS plans to attract investors from other countries. There is likely to be a good return on funds invested at Tarkumiya, but more importantly, investors will know that they are helping to make progress in resolving one of the world's most intractable disputes and to give Palestinians the better life that they deserve.
In addition to this specific business initiative, the Turkish private sector has also been contributing to Palestinian capacity-building by other means. To teach Palestinian entrepreneurs the skills that they will need, TEPAV and TOBB held a capacity-building program in Istanbul and in several other Turkish industrial centers. The course centered in part on the organization and function of the national network of chambers of commerce and industry, as well as on the establishment and management of industrial and free trade zones. Those attending included representatives from different chambers in the West Bank and Gaza, the Union of Palestinian Chambers of Commerce and the Palestinian Industrial Estates and Free Zones authority.
Occasions like this are a foretaste of the intensive collaboration that lies ahead in establishing the Tarkumiya Industrial Estate. Through the Ankara Forum Turkish, Israeli and Palestinian business leaders have already forged close links and are aware that they can cooperate even when the political landscape is beset with difficulties. This was a practical expression of our desire in Turkey to be connectors, bringing the two sides together and working with them toward a mutually beneficial goal.
If all goes well, the intention is that the Tarkumiya Industrial Estate will not be a "one-off" project but the forerunner of others, on the West Bank and also, in time, in Gaza. These enterprises will conform to the practical spirit and the logic of the Arab Peace Initiative and give it concrete expression. They may also help to increase its momentum. Not only will the economic difficulties of the West Bank and Gaza be alleviated, but common interests, a pool of experienced personnel and wider capacity-building will be generated - a change that should underpin the efforts of diplomats and politicians to build a dialogue and, in due course, a viable settlement. Therefore, we see this first industrial zone as a prototype for more to come, and perhaps not only for the Palestinians and the Arab-Israeli peace process but also in other conflict zones.
The Tarkumiya project is an extraordinary project in the sense that it requires taking into account the security considerations of different parties, which increases the costs. With the goal of still being a feasible business project, these security requirements are listed as cost items throughout the design of this project. At TEPAV we hope the time will come when more ordinary kinds of industrial zone projects will become relatively common across the Middle East, bringing businesses and prosperity to areas where there have been none, and show that cooperation between businesspeople is one of the best instruments for building a better and more stable world for our children. <