When US Senator George Mitchell was sent to Northern Ireland to help facilitate peace between the Catholics and Protestants, he was shown an interesting map overlay — one that showed how the areas with the highest levels of violence in Northern Ireland corresponded to the areas most plagued by unemployment.
“The two phenomena go together hand in glove,” Mitchell told an audience of senior private equity investors in Tel Aviv Thursday morning. “Lack of opportunity is fuel for despair, even in a place like Northern Ireland, where the primary issues were religion and national identity.”
What held true for Northern Ireland holds true for the Middle East, Mitchell believes. As such, he says, investors have huge role to play in bringing peace to the region.
Mitchell was speaking at a forum sponsored by DLA Piper, a large US-UK private equity firm which helps investors find companies and projects that will yield revenue, handling the legal, regulatory, and administrative aspects of signing business deals. In attendance were representatives of some of Israel’s largest private equity firms, including Viola Private Equity, Fortissimo Capital, Carmel Ventures, Silver Lake, and many more, along with foreign firms such as the Pritzker Group. The funds are not invested solely in high-tech, but due to the fact that tech is such a major part of the Israeli economy, many of the investments are in fact in technology-oriented companies.
It was the first such conference sponsored by DLA Piper, which has a major presence in Britain, so it was a good opportunity for UK Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gold to discuss Israel-UK business ties, a subject the ambassador has long been very interested in. The UK-Israel Tech Hub, a department of the British Embassy in Israel that encourages partnerships between companies in the two countries, has closed several deals in its two years of existence, facilitating cooperation between tech companies in Israel and potential investors in the UK, Gold told the audience.
“London is the world capital of private equity, and firms there are looking for business, while Israel is a world center of technology development, and companies there are seeking investments. It seems obvious that both sides should be speaking with each other, as there is a lot of opportunity for both Israeli and British businesses and investors,” said Gold.
Opening those doors, said Mitchell, is the key to bringing peace to the Middle East. Mitchell, who serves as President Emeritus of DLA Piper, who was named special US Envoy to the Middle East in 2009, a job he held for two years. It has since been taken over by Martin Indyk, who assisted Mitchell during his tenure.
Indyk has been “all around Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the Arab countries in the region,” Mitchell said. “One very telling highlight of my mission here was when I flew on a UNIFIL helicopter from the point where the border between Israel and Lebanon meet at the Mediterranean, flying east towards Syria. What’s noticeable is that when you look out the window at the Israeli side, you see that every hill is blooming, that there is development, culture, and prosperity for the people in Israel.”
Negotiations for peace are important, Mitchell told the audience, but without prosperity for Palestinians — as well as others in the Middle East — it may never come. “The world order that was established 100 years ago by the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the world wars is coming to an end, and no one knows what will replace it,” he said. “The Arab countries will have to create 100 million new jobs in the coming decades,” and it is going to take an economic miracle — like the one wrought by Israel — to accomplish that.
Mitchell is an old hand at peace negotiations; as former US president Bill Clinton’s Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, he successfully persuaded the Unionists (those in favor of keeping the country under British rule) and Nationalists (those seeking autonomy or independence for Northern Ireland) to sign the Good Friday agreement in 1998, with groups like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Sinn Fein pledging to stop their activities against British rule — converting what had been a paramilitary effort to unite the “six counties” with the Republic of Ireland into a political campaign.
Under the agreement, Northern Ireland would remain under British rule, unless the majority of residents there and in Ireland itself voted otherwise. For this, Mitchell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (on March 17, 1999) and the Liberty Medal (on July 4, 1998). Mitchell, who was a United States Senator from Maine from 1980 to 1995, was Senate Majority Leader from 1989 to 1995, and in 2008 he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time Magazine.
Boosting the Palestinian economy in order to improve the Palestinians’ standard of living is hardly a new idea in Israel — politicians such as President Shimon Peres have been talking about it for years. Beyond talk, Mitchell said that he has seen “some glimmers of Israel-Palestinian cooperation. For example, I visited Sodastream,” the Israel-based manufacturer of home carbonated drink machines. Sodastream is located in Ma’aleh Adumim, and employs some 500 Palestinians, Mitchell said. “There are venture funds and business groups that have organized promoting business between Israelis and Palestinians, and Israel is already operating to some extent in the Gulf countries as well.”
Although he sees prosperity as a path to peace, Mitchell has been around the negotiation block one too many times to think it will be that easy. “I know there are many issues, I was involved in many of them. It will not be easy, but when peace arrives it will be a huge step forward — in the living standards of everyone in the region, as well as for investors, who will find huge opportunities.”
It will take time, but Mitchell believes that the Palestinians will eventually begin acting in their own interests, and try to get a piece of the “Israeli dream” for themselves.
“What you have done here is a true miracle,” Mitchell told the audience. “Israel can, and I believe will, lead the effort to bring prosperity to all countries in the region.”