Secret Tech Ventures That Are Reshaping The Israeli-Arab-Palestinian WorldJul. 25, 2013
Even by Middle East standards, the scene in a Dead Sea restaurant, situated within a “green zone”–a no-man’s-land claimed by neither Israelis nor Palestinians–was surreal. As a camel knelt outside, two Israeli soldiers nonchalantly sipped coffee at the counter and a score of rabbis said a prayer before their communal lunch–all oblivious to a dozen history-making Palestinians and Israelis huddled together in the back room.
With official relations between Palestinians and Israelis still poisonous after a century of conflict, any constructive dialogue is newsworthy. But these aren’t security forces talking about joint military patrols, nor is this discussion connected to the sudden resumption of peace talks after a three-year stalemate. The group, brought together by Cisco Systems, is speaking their common language: tech management. Nearly 100 times over the past two years Israeli high-tech experts and Palestinian entrepreneurs have gotten together in the hope of making Israel’s “Startup Nation” economic miracle a cross-border affair. And it’s just one of dozens of business-driven dialogues quietly–in many cases secretly–proliferating across the Holy Land.
Like Cisco, Intel is working to improve the Palestinian IT sector, and it has established meet-ups–its Tech Forum in March brought 60 Palestinian and Israeli entrepreneurs together. Its Jerusalem office offers hope for what a Middle East of the future could look like: At the “coffee corners” on some floors the Israeli and Palestinian men look almost interchangeable, and they mix amicably with Christians and Druze, burka-clad Arab women and wig-donning ultra-Orthodox women, the latter of whom Intel is increasingly recruiting into its workforce.
Chemi Peres, the son of Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, and the manager of Pitango, the country’s largest venture capital fund ($1.4 billion), has a similar vision. He’s fond of Churchill’s “empires of the mind” prophecy, and is quick to point out that Arabic is the fastest-growing language on the Internet and is on track to become the fourth most prevalent in the world, after English, Chinese and Spanish. Accordingly, he’s raised a $50 million fund called Al Bawader (Arabic for “early signs”), earmarked solely for investments in Israel’s Arab community. The funding is unlike anything before seen in the Middle East.
Izhar Shay, who runs Israel operations for the venture capitalist Canaan Partners, which has $3.5 billion under management, has seen the seeds of this. In January 2012 he launched an online community called Start-up Stadium, designed to let Israel’s entrepreneurs talk to each other. More than 15,000 people have signed up so far–up to 10% of them, Shay says, have turned out to be Israeli Arabs. More encouraging still, another 1,000 or so are Palestinians.