I’m stunned by meeting Israelis in Amman and meeting Jordanians excited to do business with them. Can business solve the Arab-Israeli conflict?
I’m getting sick again of hearing the endless anti-US, anti-Israel speeches. I’ve had a bunch of them the last few days. Particularly annoying are the conspiracy theories. It seems like every young adult in Jordan, at least almost every one I talk to, is 100% convinced the Mossad took down the World Trade Centers. I don’t want to go in to each conversation, they’re so boring. But I’ve just had several recently where I’m with a person or some people and I’m enjoying it and they seem cool and then they start in with the theories. What’s particularly annoying is almost everyone uses almost exactly the same language. ‘think about it, you think Osama bin Laden in a cave in Afghanistan can bring down the World Trade Center? Come on.’d And, of course, ‘dWho benefits. Israel and the Jews benefit. Only them.’d Now they say that 10,000 Israelis were not at the World Trade Center on the day it went down. Just a few weeks ago it was 4,000 Jews, but every person this weekend’dpeople who don’t know each other’said 10,000 Israelis. I always get particularly pissed off at this and I say, ‘that’s not true. Many Jews died in the World Trade Center.’d This doesn’t go over well. I was standing outside a hot-dog and felafel restaurant with a group of young guys and I argued that there actually were Jews who died in the World Trade Center. The conversation went down hill rapidly. Not before the proprietor told me his dream is to have a big sign on his door saying ‘dNo Dogs. No Jews.’d But the Jordanian police won’t let him. I met this guy today who drove me to a meeting and he told me that in America there are 15 to 20 Israeli TV stations explaining Israel’s views but no Arab channels. I told him that’s absurd. He said it’s true. It just makes me sick. It’s just embarrassing talking to people who seem smart and say such stupid things. And it’s just boring. Why does every conversation need to dip into this ready-made speechifying. Ucch. It’s so lame.
I entered this bizarre world yesterday. I couldn’t believe it. I’m still in a bit of shock. I met an Israeli businessman who lives in Amman, does business in Amman. This is so strange and unheard of, I don’t think I can properly describe how shocked I was to meet him. I got his name from the Israeli embassy here (more on that later). They said there are actually a handful, maybe 3 or 4, Israeli businessmen who live in Amman, but this guy is the only one who will talk openly. Everyone else is doing business totally in secret and definitely don’t want any press. But this guy, I’dll call him Amir, was excited to hear from me and invited me over right away. I went to his house, it is locked with a big gate, but he sits at a desk right in the window, so anyone can see him (or shoot him) from the street. He’s handicapped from an accident a few years ago, so he walks with crutches. He told me this is his secret weapon in gaining the friendship of Arabs. They see him and they are shocked to think that this is one Israeli who is not stronger than they are. He often asks them to help him get up or down stairs and it’s very hard to hate a man who needs your help like that. He is a consultant for Israeli companies, but also American and European companies who want to do business with Jordan. He’s gotten to know a lot of bigshots here, so he’dll help anyone enter the Jordan market. The big business between Israel and Jordan is textiles, so he works with a lot of Chinese and other companies who build factories here, importing Israeli buttons or something, and hiring Jordanian laborers. But he also works in the agricultural sector and with high-tech companies and all sorts of things. He says he makes pretty good money, even though he would make a lot more if there was peace. He just put together an Israeli-Jordanian joint venture that is going to be huge, he says, producing and distributing an agricultural product that helps Chickens stay healthy. He says he has no fears, he walks around the city, goes to restaurants, tells everyone he’s Israeli. He has this Chinese woman assistant and they narrated stories together, like an old married couple. She rented the apartment for him and they both described the first day he came by and told the landlord he was Israeli. The landlord couldn’t say anything, just stood there. ‘she was red in the face, blank look,’d the Chinese assistant said, mimicking a stunned, blank look. But Amir calmly explained why she should rent the apartment anyway. ‘dI said, because my grandfather and your grandfather fought each other, it doesn’t mean your son and my son should fight. Do you want to continue the fight to your son, or do we end it here.’d He said that he makes a sport of convincing Arabs to like him, an Israeli. A few months ago, he was eating in a restaurant in northern Jordan and a local political leader came to his table and yelled at him and said Israelis shouldn’t be there. He said to the guy, ‘dMy son is in the army. He’s going to Gaza this weekend and he doesn’t know if he’s more afraid to kill or to be killed.’d The politician screamed and said all Israelis love to kill Palestinians. Amir said no, his son doesn’t know if he’d rather die than kill. So, the conversation went on and the politician eventually visited Israel with Amir and is now forming a camp to teach young Arabs about Israeli culture. Amir had a lot of these stories and they were all pretty self-serving, so I didn’t know what to think. But as if on cue, this young Jordanian guy comes by. He’s Amir’s main partner. He sat down and told me that eight months ago he despised Israelis, wouldn’t talk to one, wouldn’t sit with one, wouldn’t do business with one. He met Amir because he has a product he wants to export to America and he realized that Israelis have much better trade ties with the US than Jordanians do. So, he met Amir through a friend and reluctantly sat down with him. Amir worked his magic and pretty soon, they were best friends. They now do all their business together. He went to Israel for the first time a few weeks ago. ‘dI love Tel Aviv,’d he says. He said he was absolutely terrified of going to the city. Just like most Israelis are of visiting Amman. He went to a bar and he thought the second they find out I’m an Arab, they will kill me. But soon, he was sitting around with a bunch of Israelis who were really curious about what life was like in Jordan. ‘do you know, I walk the streets of Tel Aviv at 3 in the morning and no problems. I feel safe. I used to think I can’t walk there at 12 Noon.’d He said that his hotel in Tel Aviv was filled with ultra-Orthodox Jews. He mimicked the payos earlocks that Hasids wear. He was in the gym at the hotel and there was an ultra-Orthodox guy with payos on the treadmill next to his. ‘dI hate these people. I think they just want to kill me.’d But soon, they were talking and hitting it off. ‘dI can’t believe I’m talking to someone with this’d he said twirling imaginary hair in front of his ears. We were laughing and talking and discussing all the stereotypes and misinformation on both sides. I mentioned that I was with a bunch of kids the night before who were convinced the Mossad destroyed the World Trade Center. The Jordanian got very serious and said, this is 100% true. Do you think Osama bin Laden, in a cave in Afghanistan ‘d It was so annoying and Amir and I just looked at each other. Amir said, this is some kind of fantasy you have. It’s not true. NO. It’s 100% true.
There’s an aspect to this story that I’m fascinated by but Amir won’t tell me anything about, except that I’m right that it happens. Israeli companies ship products to Jordan (or elsewhere) and some local company makes them look Jordanian and then sells them to Syria or Saudi Arabia or some other country that would never do business with Israelis. So, there might be bread in Syria made out of Israeli wheat or Saudi computers with Israeli parts. I find this shocking and fascinating and Amir told me I will never be able to report it because absolutely nobody involved would ever discuss it.
Yesterday, I made an appointment with the press attach’d at the Israeli embassy. A few hours later, the security guy from the embassy called me to check out who I am. He said he had already called NPR in Jerusalem and they never heard of me. I had to explain that I work for a different network than NPR. I had to give him phone numbers of people I know in Israel and he called them to find out if I’m safe enough to allow inside the Israeli embassy. I went today. I was in a cab driven by a Palestinan guy (most of the cabbies are Palestinian here) from Jaffa. I told him I was going to the Chinese embassy which is nearby the Israeli. I didn’t want him to know for the whole drive that I was going to the Israeli embassy. This is what the embassy told me to do. When we got to the Chinese, at the last minute, I said, actually take me over there. He wouldn’t go near the Israeli embassy. He was a nice guy, older, and we were having a pleasant conversation. But he stopped a block away and said he doesn’t want to go near that place. He was nice about it. So, I walked over and there were a few Jordanian special forces guys and some plain clothes guys who I assume are Mukhabarat, secret police. The embassy is in a building surrounded by empty fields and then there are metal and concrete barriers around the empty fields. So, you can’t get within several hundred yards of the building without getting through the special forces and Mukhabarat guys and the barricades. It took the special forces guy a long time to come back with my passport, but when I finally got in, the Israeli security were quite friendly once I spoke Hebrew with them. But they still checked my bags thoroughly. The press attach’d is a nice guy. He said it’s really hard being in Amman. There are only 15 to 20 Israelis working at the embassy. Unlike any other posting, they’re not allowed to bring their families. But they can go home every week or two. Their movement is severely restricted by the security staff. They go over to each others’d houses for dinner. They don’t walk around the city. It’s just work-home-work. Even inside the embassy, he had a big lock on his door that opened with a code. He said that he has a decent amount of contact with Jordanian officials, but very little contact with the people. In Egypt, he said, the embassy staff move around much more freely, but they have almost no contact with officials. He had these pictures of his little kids on his wall, cute kids who were maybe 2 and 5. He said it’s pretty awful not seeing them grow up.
From there, I went to Jordan’s leading Air Conditioner manufacturer. The manager was an incredibly nice guy, a Palestinian who said they lost so much because they strongly supported peace with Israel and were among the first companies to do business with Israel once the peace treaty was signed. He said they had one contract, about $10 million, with an Israeli company. But they became the most hated company in the Arab world. He and his partner were attacked constantly by Islamists for doing business with Israel. He started carrying a gun with him at all times, still does, actually. They lost at least $100 million because Arab firms boycotted them. He says they’re doing so-so now, but if there was really peace, they would multiply their business tenfold. They would sell to Israel, the Arab boycott against them would end, and more American and European companies would feel comfortable doing business in the region. He said businessmen are practical, they could solve all the conflicts in ten months, while the politicians just make things worse and worse. I liked him a lot. He took me to lunch at his athletic club. He said it’s a club just for the elite and it is amazing. It’s way nicer than any health club I’ve ever seen in the US. Just huge and everything you could imagine and great food.