To die at the ripe age of 93 is a blessing in Israel, a country used to mourning young soldiers fallen in war who had only just started to dream.
Even so, the family of Shimon Peres and the team at the Peres Center for Peace were bracing to mark Israel’s 69th independence celebrations, the first without the presence of the immigrant turned kibbutznik and then politician and president whose life so closely reflected the history of the nation and who was possibly its biggest dreamer.
“For me dreaming is simply being pragmatic,” Shimon Peres used to say. Or, “You are as great as the cause you serve and as young as your dreams.” And, in his final years, he often talked regretfully about not daring to pursue even greater dreams.
“It will be Israel’s first independence day without him,” his son Chemi Peres, 58, said poignantly in an interview last week. “We have lost him, but in practice, nothing has changed. We have decided to continue to work as if he is with us, in the spirit of his vision.”
Peres, who died in September, served in the Knesset for nearly half a century, from 1959 until 2007, holding virtually all senior ministerial positions over the years. In 1994, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, for negotiating the Oslo Accords. In 1996, Shimon Peres founded the Peres Center for Peace to advance his vision of pursuing Israeli-Palestinian friendship. In 2007, he became president and held that role for seven years. At the time of his retirement, in 2014, Shimon Peres was the world’s oldest head of state.
Shimon Peres was not one to take the easy way out, always seeking new solutions — whether fighting for peace or pushing for new technologies. One of his last projects, launched in July 2016, was a national innovation center that would become an integral part of his Jaffa-located center, transforming it into the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.
Peres, the son, who is the co-founder of Pitango Venture Capital, one of Israel’s largest venture capital funds with over $1.8 billion under management, is today the chairman of the Peres Center, a role he took on while his father was still fulfilling his duties as president of the nation. But then his father was still alive. Isn’t it hard to continue his legacy if you are not a dreamer, as he was?
“We are like a ship. We have a sail that is filled by his spirit. He also left us a clear compass,” Peres said of his father. “He left us all the tools and the direction, and now we are building the boat together, to continue to sail in that direction.”
“Build your boat for your sea of dreams, direct your compasses according to your moral standards and set sail. The wind that propels you is innovation, technology and science. And try to have a positive global impact, not only in Israel but in general,” Chemi Peres, said. “That is his legacy.”
Shimon Peres’ autobiography, “No room for Small Dreams” will be published by HarperCollins in September. It’s his “final testimonial, finished in the last weeks of his life,” the publisher says.
“His book talks about this,” Peres said. “That there were bigger dreams, and that we should have dared and dreamed even more.”
The Peres Center is now in the midst of raising funds for the innovation project, which aims to draw guests from around the world to learn about Israel’s achievements in the high-tech sphere and to foster closer ties between Jewish and Arab Israeli youth and with other nations. Technology, in this vision, is used to help build bridges.
Raising funds without his father’s presence “is certainly different,” Peres said. The center has already raised half of of what it needs and the target is to have the project up and running by mid-2018. The center is also in talks with governments in Africa and with public and private entities in China to set up similar innovation centers locally.
“We are going to create innovation affairs — not foreign affairs,” Peres said. The international centers will showcase local technologies and their own tech ecosystem, he said, but they will collaborate with the Peres Center in Israel to promote knowledge, education and joint projects.
No more wars, just technology
Shimon Peres believed that for the first time in history, nations can now achieve greatness not through war — aimed at grabbing resources and cheap labor from their neighbors — but through the use of technology that will both help replace workers and create resources where there are none, like water from air or electricity from the sun, his son explained.
And Israel — with its 6,000 tech firms and an additional 1,500 new startups being created every year, and its now matured venture capital industry — can play a key role in this new kind of world, Peres said. Its only constraint is a shortage of human talent, something the country must address to be able to maximize its full potential.
Israel’s high-tech sector, which has been a growth engine for the economy, is facing an acute shortage of engineers and programmers as students shy away from studying computer science, math and statistics.
“The only thing that stops us is human talent,” Peres said. “We don’t have enough people, we don’t train them fast enough, we don’t manage to extract all the value that resides within the minorities, the ultra-Orthodox, within genders and different layers of age; between the periphery and the center, with our neighbors.”
Venture funds in Israel have come a long way since the start of Israel’s technology industry some 20 years ago, Peres said.
“The VC fund partners are much more experienced, much more mature, they have seen more, they have gone through more cycles,” he said. And the high-tech ecosystem in Israel is “much more developed” than it was some 20 years ago. There are more companies, in different stages of development, and there are many second and third-time entrepreneurs who are setting up “better designed and better executed” companies, Peres said. They are also “bolder and more daring” and have a longer-term view than when the industry was a fledgling one. “They are willing to run longer distances,” he added.
So when investors assess the Israeli technology market, they shouldn’t necessarily look at its track record because it has no real depth, he said; it is still such a relatively young industry compared to the 60 years of Silicon Valley, for example.
Investors “should look forward,” Peres said. “Look at the trends, look at the learning curve, look at what has changed, look at the strategy going forward as opposed to trying to deep dive 10 or 15 years ago,” because the market has moved on. “We have more future than past,” Peres said, his voice, optimism and enthusiasm reflecting the same passion and conviction that his father had on the subject.
This maturity of the Israeli VC and technology market — coupled with the fact that even traditional industries, like the financial, construction, transportation and insurance sectors, are seeking to innovate, and more and more objects are joining the Internet of Things, making the world ever more connected and automated — puts Israel in a special place, Peres said.
“The world is at an inflection point where you need more robust innovation — and Israel is a place for robust innovation,” he said. Everything is going “through technology disruption,” Peres said. “I think Israel is ripe in the next 10-20 years to explode in terms of the amount of opportunities. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”