Can tomato sauce defuse Arab-Israeli tensions? Daniel Lubetzky insists that it can play a role.
Three years ago, Mr. Lubetzky founded PeaceWorks, aiming to promoting peace by uniting Israeli and Arab firms.
Its other mission is to make a profit. The New York-based PeaceWorks makes sauces in northern Israel, buying some of the ingredients from Palestinians in Ramallah, a Palestinian-controlled city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Known as Moshe and Ali's "sprat" (a combination sauce and pat), it comes in 17 varieties and is increasingly popular among US consumers. Cartoons of Moshe, an Israeli chef, and Ali, an Arab magician, adorn the jars.
The duo, goes the invented legend, averted war by creating a sprat whose aroma left soldiers in a rapture, causing swords to be melted into tablespoons.
Lubetzky's approach: Economic cooperation between Arabs and Israelis creates shared interest in peace, and personal contact "shatters" cultural stereotypes.
If that has a familiar ring, it is because the idea has been a feature of the US State Department's Middle East policy, expressed annually through Mideast economic conferences that bring together Arab and Israeli businessmen and international investors.
The first summit started with great fanfare in Casablanca, Morocco, as a followup to the 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The last summit, held in November in Doha, Qatar, was a dismal failure.
The US learned it is hard to induce Arab businesses to talk to Israelis while peace talks remain stuck. The Doha meeting was overshadowed by a stay-away that included US allies such as Morocco, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, all in protest of the policies of Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu.
The climate has also impinged on PeaceWorks. The profit incentive offers the best magnet for Arab and Israeli companies to come together, Lubetzky believes. "Nobody does this for purely altruistic reasons," he says.
Through Moshe and Ali, Peaceworks is doing well in the US. Distribution has shot from 30 to 3,100 stores. But in the Middle East, politics loom large. "It's become very difficult to start new ventures, though our current ventures are doing well," Lubetzky says.
"Arabs are scared to do business with Israel. They want to do business, but they also want to save their own lives."
And Lubetzky keeps at it. He recently joined an Egyptian glass manufacturer with an Israeli partner. Fearing that publicity will harm the Egyptian company, he declines to give any details.
Lubetzky showed up with sprats at Doha. But first he stopped in Israel and the Palestinian territories as part of a goodwill tour. It was a long way from Mexico City, where Lubetkzy, the son of a Holocaust victim, grew up.
In 1993, after earning a degree at Stanford Law School, Lubetzky visited Israel to gauge the potential for Arab-Israeli joint ventures. He tasted a jar of sun-dried tomato spread, and decided he would turn it into a vehicle for Arab-Israeli cooperation. But reality has proven harsher than the gentle legend of Moshe and Ali.
Israeli and American officials see PeaceWorks as an inspiring model. But Egypt, a leader of the Doha boycott, takes issue with the company's approach. "It is not these sauces that will create peace," says Egypt's ambassador to Washington, Ahmed Maher el-Sayed. "It is peace that will create the sauces." Only action "at the governmental level" in the form of US pressure on Israel can bring about the resumption of the peace process, he adds.
"Then we can talk about wonderful projects of cooperation and about [attending] economic conferences," Mr. Sayed says.
Rafi Gamzou, Israel's cultural attach to the US, praises PeaceWorks.
"Moshe and Ali and other projects can heal years of ... demonization," Mr. Gamzou says. "There is no contradiction between such healing and formalizing a peace treaty."
"These are people of goodwill, and it is important to address psychological issues," says Sam Husseini, a spokesman for the Washington-based Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. "[But] we come back to the real problems like Israel's not following the Oslo agreements...."
Lubetzky counters that PeaceWorks shows cooperation is possible - and provides jobs.
"I don't think we're going to transform the Middle East by ourselves," he says, "but I do think we've touched some lives."
Nonprofits for Peace
In addition to moneymaking ventures such as PeaceWorks, an array of nonprofit projects also seeks to promote people-to-people contacts between Arabs and Jews. They include:
Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam: A community of Arabs and Israelis in central Israel sets out to prove the feasibility of coexistence. It features workshops on peace for high-school students.
Seeds of Peace International Camp: A summer camp in Otisfield, Maine, brings together teens from Israel, Qatar, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. They study conflict resolution and coexistence.
Peace Child: An Israeli group that promotes dialogue between Israeli Jews and Arabs through joint theater workshops led by one Arab and one Jewish facilitator.
Givat Haviva: A group, also in Israel, that specializes in Jewish-Arab encounters, Arabic-language instruction, and the development of peace curricula. Brings together members of Israeli, Palestinian youth movements.
The New Israel Fund: This US charity sponsors Jewish-Arab dialogue projects to foster coexistence, reduce the potential for violence.