MIDEAST: Virtually, There Are No Borders

  • by Pierre Klochendler (ramallah)
  • Sunday, October 30, 2011
  • Inter Press Service

At 88, Shimon Peres is Israel's entrepreneur par excellence. Architect of the Oslo agreement signed with the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993, the Israeli President has a political vision, that of a 'New Middle East' at peace with itself.

The vision has not materialised, to say the least. Yet today, Peres 'presides over' the start-up nation that Israel aspires to be. 'Our economy is based on creativity, not on money,' stresses the nation's elder. 'The most careful thing is to dare,' he keeps saying.

That's good economics, but poor politics, notes a representative of the start-up generation. 'We've had leaders that were going ahead of their people. Now it's the other way around,' proclaims Erel Margalit, founder of Jerusalem Venture Capital, a modern hub of investment in innovations that's home to a plethora of Israeli start-ups in the field of digital media.

'What kind of state do we want?' rhetorically asks the head-hunter of young innovators. 'Do we want a state fortress, with big walls around us, or do we want an open state which cooperates with the rest of the region?'

Their country disconnected from the Middle East by its occupation of Palestine, their reputation shadowed by the Separation Wall running partly within the West Bank, Israeli start-uppers are trying to take up the presidential vision of a new Middle East to borderless horizons, those of the virtual world.

Take Yadim Kaufmann from Veritas for instance: partnered with a Palestinian businessman, the Israeli investor provides financing for Palestinian start-ups with a 30 million dollar venture capital fund. He found out that Palestinians and Israelis share much in common: 'Very entrepreneurial people, smart, hard- working, ambitious — many of the characteristic of our hi-tech population. The Palestinians see us, they say, 'No reason why we can't do something similar.''

Financial rewards notwithstanding, Kaufmann's initiative conjures up the sense of mission of Western developers — to help change people's life for the better: 'Indeed, by helping solid, profitable business, we're acting for the well-being of the Palestinians,' although, he notes, 'that's not the fund's goal, not our charter.

'Still, it's definitely in our interest as Israelis that the Palestinian economy be viable and fast-growing.' And, would this particular endeavour foster cooperation between the two peoples? 'Obviously, that would be very nice. High-tech can be part of the answer,' is Kaufmann's hope.

A subsidiary of the U.S. giant in Information and Communication Technology, Cisco-Systems Israel is a worldwide leader in networking for the Internet. Its design centre was established in the Israeli coastal town of Netanya 13 years ago with 25 employees.

Nowadays, the centre employs over 700 Israelis, including 500 R&D engineers, making it the multinational's second-largest design site (after India) outside the U.S.

Corporate Social Responsibility manager Zika Abzuk likes to believe that the reason for such exponential success stems from the fact that Israeli engineers 'excel in innovation, teamwork and management. We have the ability to actually manage people globally,' she boasts.

Last year, overcoming the exact same fear that global corporations have had with regard to investing into a conflict zone like Israel, Cisco established a 10 million dollar social investment fund managed by Abzuk, and aimed at helping develop the budding Palestinian high-tech industry.

Today, Cisco-Israel outsources R&D services for their business applications directly to three Palestinian start-ups established in Ramallah. The initiative turned out to be a profitable investment. Palestinian entrepreneurs couldn't agree more.

'Having a client like Cisco is certainly a milestone in our track record history,' marvels Murad Tahboub, director general of Asal Technologies, at his company's business accomplishment. 'We can pitch the international market and say, 'Look, we're a success story — not with, a medium-size company — with one of the top ten ICT multinationals.''

Exalt Technologies CEO Taareq Maayah thinks highly of 'the good level of direct teamwork with Cisco- Israel'. Abzuk chimes in, somehow idealistically: 'Working together for a common cause creates a new culture. Israelis and Palestinians can stop playing the zero-sum game.'

The Israeli executive is in Ramallah to supervise a workshop. In April, Cisco joined forces with the Palestinian Authority to open a Cisco-funded Entrepreneur Institute Training Centre in the West Bank town managed by its Israeli branch.

This unusual collaboration brings training to aspiring Palestinian ICT entrepreneurs, enabling them to start and grow businesses in Palestine and beyond. 'The opportunity of working in tandem with Israelis opens up markets other than in Israel. To us, it's an added value,' explains Hassan Qassem, Chairman of the Palestine IT Association (PITA).

Gai Hetzroni is the Israeli manager of this joint project. 'Once computers and communication lines are available, everything's borderless. That's why occupied nations, or closed nations, can produce software and send it out there to the world. No gates,' he emphasises.

To believe PITA's executive director Abir Hazboun, ironically, Palestinian entrepreneurs have learned from Israelis how to turn a problem (imposed on them by Israel) into an asset: 'Given the restrictions of movement — the Wall, the checkpoints, the closures, the lack of territorial continuity — our start-ups are usually stable. People simply can't leave their jobs and seek opportunities elsewhere.'

So, can Israeli and Palestinian start-uppers start up a new beginning between Israelis and Palestinians in general? Cooperation under one multinational roof is one thing. Yet, the chance of these ICT innovators breaking borders of enmity and, literally, connecting their peoples is small. 'The shame is that the politicians are good at stopping us.' mutters Margalit. 'We lack neither vision nor sense of mission, yet we painfully lack peace initiatives.'

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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