The Foreign Service Journal - December 2017

42 DECEMBER 2017 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Growing Herbs on the West Bank Palestine 2015 • By Michael Martin In early 2005, USAID initiated a program to bring Israelis and Palestinians together in business partnerships. The programwas designed to provide Palestinian producers with the capital, equipment and technical assistance needed to compete in high-value agricultural markets and to increase workers’ wages for higher levels of specialization. The program offered handsome returns to participants. By the same token, investors had to show their confidence in the enterprise by making an initial investment and subsequent stepwise investments as installation progressed. Should the venture falter, they stood to lose. We structured memoranda of understanding (MOUs) in that manner to ensure partners had incentives to manage for success. The program supported 10 partnerships, among which the partnership to produce fresh herbs was the most attrac- tive, both from an economic and programmatic perspective. Israeli partners had long adapted production technologies to the region and established seasonal connections to Eurasian markets. Fresh herbs are high-value and low-weight, so they can be profitably flown to distant markets, but they have to be delivered quickly after harvest. That latter point was significant because the U.S. government was focused on facilitating the movement and access of goods and people safely and expedi- tiously throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Regularly packing and transporting goods properly through checkpoints and borders, and on to flights from Tel Aviv to Europe and Russia, would result in a model system that could be replicated. Palestinian investors were quick to take advantage of the program. They valued the new technologies and were keen to explore markets beyond the Levant. An herb farm in the north- ern West Bank quickly became the largest partnership. Inves- tors satisfied the initial requirements of the MOU: They spent several hundred thousand dollars installing irrigation networks and leveling hills in the Alfarah area of the West Bank so that USAID could follow through with its commitment to install greenhouses, bring in soil from the Golan Heights and obtain ancillary irrigation equipment, etc. The MOU was not a binding document, but was considered a reliable commitment because it was backed by the U.S. government. However, when Hamas was elected in 2006, USAID was instructed to halt all interventions on behalf of Palestinians except for humanitarian assistance. That meant USAID could not satisfy its commitment under the MOU. Shortly after the elec- tion, the investors in the herb farm invited us to a lunch with the members of their community. As we drove into the valley for the meeting, we could see the commitment of the Palestinian partners, who had dramatically transformed the landscape by leveling surrounding hills. It was an eyesore, but one the com- munity anticipated would be replaced by income-generating and job-creating facilities. We were keen to meet with the investors and the community to clarify any misconceptions and explore avenues for continu- ing our collaboration. We wanted them to know that we remained personally committed to finding mutually beneficial resolutions. They treated us to customary Palestinian hospitality and plenty of delicious food. The lunch generated absorbing discussions about their lives and interests and how our collaboration would enable them to provide for their families while working close to home. Throughout the discussions, I was struck at how this meeting in a Palestinian rural community center reminded me of farmers’ get-togethers in church basements in Iowa when I was growing up. Despite the obviously different religions, the concerns expressed by faces similarly weathered by farm-work seemed universal, and presented common ground to build on. They were appreciative of our visit and trusted our promise to try to obtain permission to move forward with USAID’s commitment. That permission could only come from the U.S. Secretary of State, and was complicated by the political optics of supporting a government led by Hamas. Our State Department colleagues in Consulate General Jerusalem recognized that the ban on assis- tance would be counterproductive if it harmed trusted, existing partners, especially after they had lived up to their part of the agreement. Permission was ultimately granted, and the herb farm turned out to be a notable success and a model for future cooperation. The World Bank urged Tony Blair, the Middle East Quartet’s special envoy to the Middle East, to visit the farm shortly after it was launched to observe its operations. Other Palestinian inves- tors soon followed suit without donor support. The herb industry has grown substantially in the past decade, expanding its range of products and markets and providing specialized jobs for more than 1,300 Palestinians. The herb farm can be seen in a YouTube video: KhaizaranHerbFarm n Michael Martin joined USAID in 2002. He is currently posted in South Africa.