Interview highlights from Helmi Kittani

In Bank HaPaolim, which operates in a very professional and business like manner, I aspired to work for economic development in the Arab sector. I wanted to use the bank's resources for the sake of the economic development of the Arab sector. I think the bank must not only be a commercial entity that gains money, but also contributes to the welfare of the community within which it operates. I think I was the first person that had the courage to say that the bank must act significantly for the sake of the economic development of the Arab sector. This approach is beneficial for the two sides. It will lead to more customers, larger turnover and more profits for the bank, and also to more businesses and a new level of business in the Arab sector.

In the beginning, the Center [for Arab-Jewish Economic Development] worked to encourage the establishment of joint businesses. I came and said that it would be very difficult to create joint businesses of Jews and Arabs if the economy of the Arab sector is very weak and the economy of the Jews is very strong. This gap makes it impossible to advance partnerships and cooperation. I said it is necessary to help to advance and to raise the level of economic development in the Arab sector and then you can develop true partnerships between the two sides. And so we began with the empowerment process of young Arabs, the human capital. Later we helped the Arab local authorities to develop the physical infrastructure. We said first you must begin with this approach and later you can move to the level of encouraging individual initiatives of Arab and Jewish businessmen.

[…From] my personal, financial position I knew I would be taking a drastic pay cut. To be a senior manager in a bank and then to own a private business that had good earnings, and then to move on to an association, an NGO, would clearly lead to a substantive reduction in my personal income. However, I thought about the future of my children, who were still in high school then, and I thought about what I would have to learn in order to help them develop their personal careers. I thought that for the sake of my community, and for the sake of building one society in the State of Israel with regards to Arabs and Jews, it is worth sacrificing money for the sake of making a contribution.

[…It] is possible to build a foundation on which Jews and Arabs can live together in the State of Israel. I believed that. Since then I have directed all of my thinking, directed all of my experience and knowledge to achieving this goal: cooperative living by means of shared economic development.

We thought that through the joint [economic] ventures of Jews and Israeli Arabs with the Palestinian Authority there was an opportunity for Israeli Arabs to integrate into the Israeli economy and into the mainstream. Ultimately Israeli Arabs and Palestinians are the same people, and thus it is possible for them to coordinate a joint deal. […] It was part of our belief that a long-term peace cannot be sustained if Palestinians live in poverty while Israelis are rich. It cannot exist, it is just impossible.

Thirty students, Jews and Arabs [in a joint business program], live together and begin to build ideas. They say that this place can become the Garden of Eden. We must build a common Middle East business leadership. They believe they will be the foundation. We also believe that they will be the foundation because they serve as a good example. Today they can convey to the Jewish people in Israel, to the Arabs in Israel and to the Palestinians that it is possible to live together, that we can understand each other. Despite the difference, it is possible to respect each other and still understand that others are different but that I can live with them, I can learn with them, and I can establish businesses with them and everyone will profit from that. And I think that if we succeed in conveying this message to the Palestinian and Israeli leaders we can break down the barriers and help foster trust and the creation of a true and righteous peace in the region.

The hardest, from our perspective, are psychological matters and not matter-of-fact issues. From a business perspective, we have proved that one plus one, in this situation Palestine and Israel, equals much more than two. They equal three or maybe more than three. From a strategic and business perspectives, as soon as there's peace here, it will be possible to open the region to foreign investments. This will raise the region and people will be able to live in prosperity. The difficulty stems more from psychological reasons, from concern, from fear, from hatred and from the uncertainty about whether other people are willing to accept me as a partner in this region. This is what must be broken, the stigma. The stereotypes must be broken and it must be proven that we can overcome the psychological barriers and live together and that we can earn a lot of money together.

I am a businessman and I seek to advance business projects, but a long time ago I arrived at the conclusion that it is impossible to succeed in business projects if we do not simultaneously address the psychological and societal aspects. With regard to Arabs and Jews, in the beginning of my activities, in 1993, I approached Jewish businessmen and told them it was worthwhile for them to invest in Arab villages and towns. The Jews said, "Can we enter Arab villages and they won't through stones at us?" And the Arabs said "You want us to give our land to Jewish partners?" When we began those projects and showed them that we are all partners in this country, it became clear that the devil is not so evil.

[As an Arab Israeli] I share the Palestinian culture, since I belong politically and culturally to the Palestinian community. However, I also have the Israeli culture because I am part of the State of Israel and it's important for me to build it. I can serve as the natural bridge between the Jewish society in Israel and Palestinian society in Palestine. I can serve as the bridge that can really help foster economic cooperation and also foster peace on the political level.

Look, the conflict impacts my personal life in a harsh manner. I'm in Baka el-Gharbiye and it is located on the seam line, just on the Green Line. My mother is from a village that is over the Green Line. So my family is located on the other side of the wall and it is difficult for me to keep up natural and normal contact with them. Even if a relative dies I cannot always participate in the mourning - if they live on the other side of the Green Line. And likewise, it is hard for my relatives, my cousins, to come and participate in my happy events or, mourning, God forbid.

In order to get to Ramallah I had to arrange for an entrance permit from the Israeli army and this is not easy. We also help those who want to visit us and the students participating in our program who need to enter Israel, we help them get into Israel. Sometimes we meet in Jerusalem. Sometimes we meet abroad. But, once again, I hope, in my optimism concerning this place, that in a short period we will be able to hold meetings on a more frequent basis to advance our common interests.

Peace means to me two independent countries, the State of Israel and the State of Palestine, within borders, which most people in the two regions agree to, the 1967 borders. Peace means to me that between these two countries there will be open borders, allowing economic and social activities. Peace means to me that it is possible to establish many areas of joint economic activity between the two countries for the sake of creating sources and places of employment for both peoples. Peace means to me that in Palestinian universities and Israeli universities Palestinian and Israeli students can learn together and in the process also develop common cultures. Peace means to me the life here will be quiet for all. Israelis can live in quiet and Palestinians can live in quiet. And both peoples can together think about building a market - culturally and economically - that will serve as a positive example to the rest of the world. And true peace means to me that Israel and Palestine can help resolve other conflicts in other places of the world. That's the peace that I want.