Might free trade bring peace to the Middle East?

The nearly complete destruction of the continental European economies by World War II seriously endangered the stability of Europe’s social and political institutions. Europe’s leaders knew that to rebuild from the ruins it was essential to form new kinds of international institutions to ensure prosperity stability and peace in the region. The first of these institutions was the European Coal and Steel Community established in 1952 to integrate the coal and steel industries of France, West Germany, Italy Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg. Fifty years later, based on the success of this first experiment in economic interdependence, we now see the European Union with twenty five member nations and four candidate countries set to join during the next few years. The economies have burgeoned but more importantly peace has persisted.

Let’s consider the possibilities and potential of a Middle Eastern Union. The crux of the problem is Jerusalem. The holy Old city is matter of faith to so many. For Christians it is sacred because of its associations with Christ. For Jews it has served as the center for their people – not only in a national way but, more importantly in a religious sense. For Muslims only Mecca and Medina are more important spiritual places. And the fighting over the real estate that represents its spiritual events appears perpetual.

Jerusalem can be a primary part of the solution. But we must look beyond the bombing of the day. We must imagine a safe, prosperous, and peaceful place. Imagine an international shrine. Perhaps the Old city would be administered by Buddhists or Norwegians or the United Nations. Israel would have its grand capital to the west in the New City and the Palestinians to the east a bit.

Religious tourism would feed the economies in both countries as well as the surrounding area. Imagine the possibilities. In 2000 before the most recent insanity of violence tourism brought in $3.2 billion in revenue for Israel Compare that to Disneyland in Orange County California. That park’s yearly 10 million visitors spend about $100 each on tickets food and souvenirs. Add in the transportation, hotel, and restaurant revenues appreciated in the neighborhood and that’s more than a couple of billion dollars a year coming to the Anaheim environs.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (built over the tomb of Jesus) would draw Christians. The waiting wall is a special place for Jews. Muslims would flock to the Dome of thee Rock (Mohammed was carried by the angel Gabriel for a visit to heaven after praying at the rock). The most enlightened tourists would visit all three. Disney might consult on the queuing problems. And outside of the Old City are Bethlethem, Nazareth Jericho the Sea of Galilee the dead Sea and Red Sea to name only the moiré obvious attractions just in Israel. We’re talking $10 billion to $20 billion in annual revenues if things are done right – that’s about 10 to 15 percent of the current GDP of Israel.

To the eats the new Hijaz railway Corp, is already working on a line connecting Iran and Jordan via Syria and is talking about liens connecting Iraq, Turkey, and Europe as well – all for the sake of religious tourism . Indeed the line’s original purpose was taking pilgrims to Medina from Damascus; that was before Lawrence of Arabia severed it for carrying arms and troops during World War I. The current company executives reckon the two day trip form Tehran to Amman will cost only about $30 and the Shiite Muslims of Iran will flock to their holy sights in the area why not run the line all the way to east Jerusalem?

How about Jerusalem as the site for the 2020 Olympic games? That’s another $5 billion in revenues. And ignoring the dollars for a moment please consider the sentiments associated with the 2020 Jerusalem Games juxtaposed with the disaster of Munich in 1972 and ignoring the dollars for another moment, imagine the spiritual splendor for so many millions visiting the sources of their faith, treading some of the original paths of David, Jesus and Mohammed.

This little fantasy presumes a peaceful political division of Israel and Palestine along the lines reaffirmed in the Oslo Accords. It presumes a dropping of all commercial boycotts in the region. It presumes that Palestinians won’t have to risk being shot while hopping the fence to work in Israel. It presumes that companies like Nestle will be able to integrate the operations of their complementary plants in the area. It presumes that the United States and other countries will send to the region legions of tourists rather than boatloads of weapons. It presumes an open, international and most importantly whole old city of Jerusalem. And it presumes free trade and travel among all nations in the region allowing all to prosper in new ways.

Finally, Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond points out that the Middle East, historically referred to as the Fertile Crescen was the cradle of civilization. It became so long ago because of innovation and trade in the region. One can only imagine what free trade in the area would produce now.