On July 21, two months before Shimon Peres’s death, the Peres Center for Peace launched the Israeli Innovation Center at its headquarters in Jaffa. The event was a prestigious affair, attended by President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, business leaders, mayors and the like. A press release from that day proclaimed that the new center would be “an educational hub and visitors’ center, drawing guests from around the world to learn about Israel’s historic achievements, absorb the core values of innovation, optimism and the pursuit of peace, and be inspired and empowered to positively impact their communities and the world.”
It was precisely the sort of institutional pablum that cynical journalists and other ordinary people might be forgiven for ignoring. Peres’s well-known love affair with the country’s high-tech sector and “innovation” seemed a fitting preoccupation for an aging ex-president, since it seemed to involve mostly chattering about aspirations, dreams, the age-defying power of optimism, and other idle things.
Then, on September 28, Peres died, and the conversation about him abruptly changed. Israelis suddenly took a long, hard look at the Peres-shaped hole the 93-year-old politician left behind in their national consciousness.
For Israeli Jews, Peres was many things: the indefatigable government man and defense planner, founder of the purported Israeli nuclear weapons program; the ruthless and cunning politician who served Israel’s top leaders, then joined their ranks and spent decades maneuvering to survive and triumph at the highest levels of Israeli politics; and finally, the wise old president whose Polish-inflected baritone reminded Israelis of their grandparents and whose unfailing wit and limitless supply of bon mots were marshalled to one cause: presenting the people of Israel, both to the world and to themselves, at their optimistic best.
Those who knew the man, colleagues, aides or enemies alike, know that he was all these things, sometimes simultaneously. But above it all, through all the bitter years of political strife, estrangement from his publicity-shy wife, and failures as numerous and spectacular as his successes, Peres clung to a fundamental conviction, so deeply held that it was more an identity than an ideology: that history was constructed by human hands, that societies can choose their fate and assemble through sweat and cunning the history they want to live in.
It is here that Peres Center press releases, like the man’s addiction to clever quips, begin to touch on a deeper reality.
Israel’s founders did not leave behind them canonical texts about political liberty, as did their American equivalents. But they did write a very great deal indeed about self-reliance. These texts, from the warnings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky to the pamphlets of David Ben Gurion, are a window into this Israeli Jewish obsession in nearly every field of human endeavor — war, art, politics, architecture, diplomacy, technology. In the Israeli political psyche, “freedom” and “self-reliance” are synonyms. Israel’s aching anthem Hatikva yearns to be “a free people in our land,” a communal freedom achieved by the self-confident exertions of a once-hunted and despised tribe.
In his smooth, ingratiating way, in his sparse, poetic Hebrew and slow but eloquent English, Peres by his ninth and tenth decades had become an apostle of that founding self-image, which saw Israel built through the conscious decision of a beleaguered people to change the decree of history, to be buffeted no more by the vagaries of a heartless humanity.
Whatever one thinks of Israel’s many faults – and Israelis think about them a great deal – Israelis are aware that theirs is a startling achievement in nation-building. Israel is the only democracy of any consequential size founded in the wake of World War II that has not experienced a military coup of one sort or another. When David Ben Gurion died in 1973, Israel’s population was four times what it was when he declared its founding just 25 years earlier. Lacking the advantages of natural resources, saddled with gargantuan defense costs and constant conflict, and riven by profound social and political divides, it nevertheless developed and prospered.
It is therefore a mistake to see Shimon Peres as an “optimist” in the mold of the shiny, individualistic ethos of this internet age. To Israelis he was an emissary from another time, from a generation of the Israeli experience that saw millions of bedraggled refugees, even as they battled each other at home and hostile nations across their borders, manage to build cities, universities, a triumphant army and, finally, the chaotically innovative Israeli technology sector Peres so loved.
“Not many people established a state; he did. Not many people established projects on the scale of [the nuclear research center at] Dimona; he did,” Peres’s son Chemi Peres told The Times of Israel in an interview last week.
Chemi is chairman of the Peres Center in Jaffa, which the late president founded in the 1990s to advance his vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Chemi’s life now seems bound up in his father’s legacy, and consumed by his father’s brand. In mid-November, he was in Washington for the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. A day later, he was in Moscow for the launch of a scholarship program named for Peres by a prestigious foundation.
Everywhere he goes, his message is simple and clear: his father’s optimism did not come from some trifling sentiment, but from long and hard experience.
As Chemi Peres told the auditorium of Jewish leaders and activists in Washington, “My father used to say, ‘Israel exceeded all of our dreams. Looking back, I only regret that our dreams were not greater.’
“He told us about Israel of the early days. There were swamps in the north and deserts in the south. We had two lakes, one dead and the other dying. And in between them ran the Jordan river, with more fame than water. A holy country surrounded by oily countries. We had only one unique resource: our people.”
Israel’s story was “the story of a dream come true, realized by a people who built their future with their own hands.”
In the 1990s, when Shimon Peres assured Israelis that the Palestinians would seize the opportunity of the Oslo peace process to replicate Israel’s democracy and economic success, the political right accused him of naïveté. It was a naïveté of sorts, to be sure, but not a blind one. It is beside the point here whether he was right or wrong, and, indeed, how one should divide the blame or agency for Oslo’s failure. The point is simply that for Peres, these expectations of the Palestinians were a function of Israel’s own unlikely development. William F. Buckley extolled those who could “stand athwart history.” In Shimon Peres’s Israel, in the lived reality of the founding generation he embodied, and which for many Israelis today remains the defining characteristic that generation bequeathed to the nation, anyone could stand athwart history, be the living pivot around which great and mighty things turn.
In the conversation with The Times of Israel that followed Chemi Peres’s appearance at the Jewish federations’ gathering, he did not hesitate to take that lesson to a far-reaching conclusion. His mission, he explained, was to find ways to bring Israel-scale economic and political success to a fractured and bleeding Arab world, “expanding the ‘start-up nation’ into the ‘start-up region.'”
The Arab world may be in crisis, he acknowledged, but “you also have to look at the great potential the Arabs have in the Middle East.
“The Middle East was divided into states by Sykes-Picot. That agreement held for many years, for better or worse, but has come to its end. The Middle East is breaking apart from that structure. The question is what will replace it. We’re suggesting to the 370 million people living in the Middle East to find ways to carry the region forward. It’s a very young region, 60 percent are under 25, with the highest population growth in the world but very slow [economic] growth as a region. We’re suggesting that this region can grow with development based in science, technology and the internet.”
This focus on technology is no accident, and Chemi Peres no newcomer to it. He is a longtime investor in the high-tech sector who in 2014 founded Amelia Investments, a fund that invests in startups in the Middle East and whose profits are donated to the Peres Center.
A technology economy can drive a profound change in the Arab world, he said. “A country that adopts this can rise from poverty and ignorance, change its capabilities, change the [economic] climate. Once you’re a country that has these abilities, you find other countries to trade with. The Middle East has to divorce the world it lives in, the wars over borders, ethnicities, land, water, and to start to conquer one’s self,” to create the levels of growth and opportunity that might win what he calls “the battle for the youth.”
It’s happened before, he insisted.
“The internet was founded in English and changed the English-speaking world. It was then established [in the Chinese language] in China and changed the Chinese economy. You can establish an internet in Arabic. And this is happening. It is happening slowly, but getting faster. Already Arabic is the fastest growing language on the internet; 170 million Arabs are on smartphones.”
Why don’t the wars and terror of the past six years deter him?
“Look at China,” he said. “It’s a great place to invest, and global companies want to invest there, right? Twenty-five years ago, when you turned on the TV and saw the student [in Tiananmen Square] standing in front of that tank, the world didn’t want to invest there. China looked crazy. Twenty-five years later it’s an economic superpower.
“Africa was a failing continent. Today it’s seen as a market of a billion people with extraordinary potential. Investment in Africa is rising and rising.
“Now I look at the Middle East. You may say to invest there is crazy, there’s Islamic State and war. But China 25 years ago was seen the same way. Look at Saudi Arabia, where the young prince Mohammad bin Salman has a 2030 plan that talks about turning Saudi Arabia into an innovation country. They want to move off oil. The US through innovation turned into an almost energy-independent economy. The Chinese didn’t decide to change for no reason. They took the example of the US, copied that, established their own internet infrastructure.”
And then there’s Israel. “Israel is a model, an example. It’s coming close to $40,000 GDP per capita. What changed Israel is two things: the need to innovate to survive, and the interest of global companies. 350 foreign companies employ half the Israeli high-tech industry.”
Chemi Peres meets many technology companies and investors looking for new opportunities in Israel. Look farther afield, he urges them.
“We first ask them to come to Israel, to hire Israeli engineers, both Jews and Arabs. Then we ask global companies to come invest in the [broader] Middle East. We want global companies to establish research centers [in the Arab world], work with universities – everything they do in Israel. If they go to the Middle East, that can create a [tech] economy there, an Arabic internet. That’s what we suggest to every global company we talk to. It’s in everyone’s interest. A region that grows economically is safer, creates less terror. I think this isn’t just an Israeli interest.
“And it’s already happening. Chinese companies will do this, too, not just American companies. I say to the Arab world, take this forward, and it will take you forward.”
For Shimon Peres, Israel’s achievements were a living proof of what the region could become, both reprimand and promise. His innovation center, chaired by his son, wants to make it harder for the Arab world to ignore that potential.
Said Chemi: “We have requests from other places in the world to establish a Peres Center for Innovation” – including, discreetly, in Arab states – “and when we go to tell the story around the world, it’s not just a story of innovation, but of peace, of peace through innovation, which mesh very clearly in the story of my father’s life.
“If they invite me to an Arab country, I’m willing to go, to sit down with anyone. Especially the young.”