Holding hands across the Middle East divide

Marks & Spencer is helping Jews and Arabs overcome discrimination in Israeli workplaces
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While their political leaders have been trying to hammer things out at Camp David, the young Jews and Arabs of the Israeli business world are meeting in Marks & Spencer to broker a peace process of their own.

While their political leaders have been trying to hammer things out at Camp David, the young Jews and Arabs of the Israeli business world are meeting in Marks & Spencer to broker a peace process of their own.

Building Business Bridges is a fledgling project that aims to redress some of the imbalances in Israel's surging economy. The one-year training programme brings together entrepreneurs and managers from both Jewish and Arab-run firms, and hopes to persuade them of the financial benefits of cultural co-operation.

Set up in 1998, the course takes a mixture of about 20 people, with a wide variety of academic and industrial experi- ence. But what all participants have in common is the firm belief that the economies of both Israel and the wider Middle East will not move forward until companies properly trade across Arab-Jewish borders.

Many of the students on the course are critical of the status quo in their country. Although its many hi-tech companies have won the admiration of the West - as well as some investment - Israeli management and employment structures are marred by glass walls and glass ceilings. The programme hopes that, through its alumni, it will eventually establish a network of co-operating Arab and Jewish firms.

Ilan Frankel, who runs a foundation for culture and development in education, says: "There are two types of problem in Israeli businesses. One is when Arab employees can't move up within an organisation; the other is when they can't even work there at all."

The first problem follows a similar pattern to that experienced in businesses around the world. In Israel, it is regularly the case that if two Jewish and Arab candidates are competing for the same promotion, the Arab one is likely to be turned down without much in the way of explanation. Whereas a third of the Jewish population is employed in management posts, the figure for the Arab population is only 13.5 per cent.

But the other problem is, in many ways, more serious. Many Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 per cent of the population, are prevented from even entering the labour market as Jewish-run businesses have adopted an unspoken policy of keeping them out. "It is never an open thing," comments Mr Frankel. "But you just know it happens. It is the duty of the new generation of employers to try to turn this around."

Often, a firm will cover itself by insisting it only employs people who have undertaken their military service - Arabs can volunteer for the armed forces, but don't face a compulsory call-up. This does not exclude women, but it certainly leaves Arab Israelis out of the running.

Sharon Barzik, a Jewish student and chief financial officer of a hi-tech start-up, says: "These are the problems of years of discrimination. It will take guts for a company to make the first move. You need to make the leap of trust, but once it has happened, others will do the same."

The Building Business Bridges programme has been set up to give Israel's emerging captains of industry the impetus they need to set that in motion. The course includes an academic component in Israel, then practical training in London on M&S's management training programme before a short internship with some of Israel's leading manufacturers. The students all live together in flats above M&S's flagship Oxford Street store.

Saida Mohson-Bayadsi, an Arab, runs a law practice. She says: "It did take some time for everyone to fit in. You have to remember that in Israel, Jews and Arabs never mix. For most of us this was the first time we'd had real conversations with the other culture. It's only once you see the problem that you set about solving it."

The New Israel Fund, which manages the project as one of its many co-operation initiatives, sees M&S, a long-time supporter of Israeli causes, as its ideal partner. Not only does M&S own a number of stores all over the Middle East, but many of its textile and food suppliers are based in the region. All this has made M&S a shrewd player among the sensitivities and pitfalls of doing business in and around Israel.

Speaking at the project's launch, M&S's former managing director, Lord Stone, said: "Given that M&S is already involved commercially in the process of Jewish-Arab co-operation, we are in a unique position to contribute to this work."

The process of co-operation has wider implications for Israel. As its economy expands, it needs a bigger, cheaper workforce. The obvious answer would come via closer ties with its Arab neighbours, which adds a critical economic twist to the peace talks.

Some Israeli companies, such as textile-maker Delta, have outsourced in Jordan and Egypt, and have business relations with companies there. If hostilities fade, the potential for economic ties with Syria and the rest of the Middle East are very attractive.

Hanna Chacour is an Arab course member from Procter & Gamble. He says: "The programme is not just about bridging gaps within Israel, but about Israel co-operating as a state with its neighbours."