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How Opposites Attract : Politics: An advocate for Israel and a supporter of Arab causes are working for economic development in the Middle East. Mel Levine and James Zogby have their differences, but they're doing business.

March 27, 1994|MATHIS CHAZANOV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former Westside Congressman Mel Levine, a leading advocate for Israel, and James Zogby, a prominent supporter of Arab causes, used to have very little in common.

They often tangled on TV and at Democratic Party conclaves over their wildly different views on the Middle East.

Now, however, they're in the odd position of sharing the presidency of Builders for Peace, a nonprofit organization devoted to attracting American investment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"We have our differences about the past and we have our differences about the future, but right now our focus is on making the present work," said Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, which researches policy issues and trains grass-roots political organizers in Arab-American communities.

Based in Washington, Builders for Peace was set up by Vice President Al Gore after President Clinton called on Arab and Jewish Americans gathered for the signing of the Sept. 13, 1993, peace accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization to help keep the process moving.

So far, the group has taken a delegation of Arab- and Jewish-Americans to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The group also plans to organize a visit to the United States by Palestinian businessmen in May.

Although hands have been shaken on half a dozen business deals, more progress will have to wait until the turmoil subsides following the Feb. 25 massacre of dozens of Muslims by a Jewish settler in Hebron, both men said.

So far the informal deals have included forming garment manufacturing and pharmaceutical firms in Gaza and the West Bank and building a hotel on the Gaza beachfront.

There has also been talk of selling Palestinian crafts on an American TV shopping network, setting up an investment fund, building housing for Palestinian refugees and developing a corps of young Americans with management and business skills to help modernize the Palestinian economy.

And while the sides disagree on major issues, such as the establishment of a Palestinian state, "we both believe very strongly that economic development is very important to the success of the peace process," Levine said.

"Our work is ongoing," Zogby said. "We're not waiting for implementation (of the accords) to begin."

"This has nothing to do with a Palestinian state," said Merv Adelson, an entertainment mogul on the Builders board.

"This has to do with strengthening the peace that has been negotiated through strengthening the economic situation of the Palestinians," Adelson said.

"We are trying to create jobs with the hopes of getting the people off the streets and busy doing something and improving their way of life," said Jesse Awaida, a Middle East-born computer businessman now based in Colorado.

The cooperation of Levine and Zogby is a long way from the days when, at the 1988 Democratic Convention, they debated the party's Mideast platform.

"I always had my toughest debates with Zogby," said Levine, who, after losing the Democratic Senate primary in 1992 to Barbara Boxer, returned to Los Angeles as a partner in the venerable law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. "We always fought a lot but I respected his ability."

These days the pair, both Little League coaches, have found a common love: baseball.

"We talk baseball," Levine said, "and even Middle East politics once in a while."

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