Can Israel lead in clean tech?

If Israel truly wants to lead the world in clean tech investment and innovation, there must be state support.

Many articles have been written claiming that Israel can become a leader in clean technology over the next 10 years. Maybe yes, maybe no.

To make such a prediction with any degree of accuracy, we need to define “clean” technology. To date, clean or green technology, often referred to as “clean tech” comprises several categories and sub-categories including, although not exclusively:


  • Renewable energy (solar, wind)
  • Energy efficiency
  • Storage
  • Pollution remediation
  • Water purification/desalinization
  • Agricultural advancement

Part of the challenge of establishing a center of excellence for clean tech is that, unlike information technology, its genesis can take place at any university or laboratory around the world. The necessity for a Silicon Valley or Route 128 has been reduced by the fact that electrical engineering is no longer the only academic background required to solve environmental and energy challenges.

Microbiology and chemistry graduates are more likely to find employment at clean tech startups than are their electrical engineering counterparts. Thanks to the internet a clean tech universe has been created, and companies are cropping up all over the globe, with no apparent bias toward any particular climate or time zone.

Why Israel might be a clean tech epicenter

Some factors make certain sectors more conducive to leading in clean or green technologies. Solar technology in the Middle East is one example. Due to advances made because of Israel’s urgent need for reliable solutions to deal with its own environmental challenges (mainly the water crisis) the country’s clean tech market has become very attractive to foreign investment.

Despite being one of the world’s most arid regions, experiencing ever-increasing water consumption and alarmingly low levels of rainfall, Israel has succeeded where others have failed.

Water demands have been met over the past few decades by effective water management, including rain harvesting, flood reservoirs and the introduction of innovative irrigation methods to serve the needs of agriculture. Significant advances have been achieved by Israelis in desalination of seawater, recycling and purifying of municipal wastewater, and reclaiming of sewage water.

At least 30 percent of agricultural water is drip-irrigated to orchards and non-food crops. Relatively speaking, Israel has devoted more resources to the development of wastewater treatment and reclamation than any other country in the world.

Israel also has a head start in the solar thermal realm, as nearly all apartment buildings in the country have simple solar thermal panels on their roofs. Motivated more by the will to survive than by a hunger to address environmental issues, Israel has more reason than most nations to wean itself off crude oil.

While every country wants to lessen its dependence on crude oil, for Israel, it’s personal. This may prove to be one of the most compelling arguments for why the relatively small nation state may indeed become the next epicenter of clean technology innovation. Israel is home to Ormat, one of the leading companies in the world for geo-thermal power plants and recovered energy. In agriculture, Israel is the birthplace of and world leader in drip irrigation, literally turning a desert into an agricultural country. Netafim is the leading company in the world in this field.

In the energy storage arena, Israeli company Tadiran has become one of the leaders in long-life industrial strength batteries. Israel’s strategic location, with easy access to both Asia and Europe, has enabled these companies to garner customers on several continents while operating from home.

But where are the clean tech entrepreneurs?

However, to date there are no leading Israeli solar power companies on the market. There is an innate inertia at work in Israel cautioning the country to adhere to what it knows best – IT and telecom – while stifling potential investment and diversion of talent to clean technology. While there is no shortage of smart scientists and clean tech research, there is a surprising lack of clean tech entrepreneurs.

Historically, Israelis have been skilled at improvisational thinking within an already established category (think ICQ). Clean tech, however, is a completely new paradigm that requires category builders more than improvements.

One need only look at the mass of “technology refugees” to see that Israelis have been slow to adapt to the new opportunities in clean technology.

Conversely, technology entrepreneurs in the US have been migrating to the clean technology sector in greater numbers. Part of the reason that this migration has been slow in Israel is that the Israeli entrepreneurs and scientists are too isolated from one another.

Overtures from one side to the other are lacking. Furthermore, scientists are slow to leave their tenured posts at universities for business ideas that are, admittedly, still a few years away from proving themselves.

Lastly, Israel is a small country. Currently, there just aren’t enough demonstration projects to show to the rest of the world. Without the significant helping hand of a large government endowment, Israel’s chances of competing with the likes of the US, China and India seem unlikely.

The same location that provides regular and dependable exposure to the sun leaves Israel in a region of the world almost bereft of wind, when compared to Europe and the Americas. Not surprisingly, there isn’t much wind energy in use, nor are there many wind experts.

More “dating” between university researchers and entrepreneurs is the only way to create a marriage of industry and science. Also needed is a shift in focus from the Office of the Chief Scientist. More grant money should be in the hands of clean tech companies (currently it represents less than 15%) if Israel is to distinguish itself from its competitors.

In summary, Israel must realize that clean tech is certain to be one of the growth industries of the next 10 years, but to truly lead the world in clean tech investment and innovation, there must be greater support from the state.

Israeli army experiences reveal complex problems

For Santa Fe resident Daniel Farber, his service in the Israeli military was a manifestation of civic responsibility.

My time spent as a staff sergeant in an Israeli Special Forces unit has afforded me unique experiences and perspectives. Contrary to what many might believe my service in the Israeli military was not an expression of hate. It was an extension of the values that were instilled in me growing up with parents who belonged to the civil-rights movement. My service was a manifestation of civic responsibility – responsibility toward the Jewish people, and at the same time, responsibility toward the innocent Palestinians I interacted with during complex operations to root out the not-so-innocent terrorists. I joined the Israeli army because it was real. I was presented with real responsibility and real moral dilemmas. As the recently appointed Israeli ambassador to America, Michael Oren wrote that the Israeli dilemma is “whether the IDF should pull its forces out of major Palestinian cities and take a risk for progress toward peace, or increase the likelihood of suicide bombers reaching our municipal buses – between reducing the danger to my eldest son, who is currently patrolling those cities, and enhancing that of my two younger kids, who ride those buses to school.” Throughout my time in the Israel Defense Forces, I kept close ties to my hometown Santa Fe. In both reading the local publications about Israel, and in personal interactions with some locals concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I have come across misconceptions that are disturbing, funny and all-out ridiculous. It is disturbing that some Palestinians live in horrid conditions. Even more disturbing is that the Palestinian Authority, along with the other 22 Arab countries, have the ability to end their poverty but they don’t. It is disturbing that the notion is that peace is about land, and that peace can be achieved by three politicians on different sides of the table making concessions to people they really would rather not deal with. Complexities of life It is disturbing that people have not yet recognized that peace cannot be forced. It is disturbing that people have been blind to the realization that the stepping stones of peace would be promoting coexistence, reforming the Palestinians’ education system, and improving economic ties between Israel and the Palestinians. It is funny that so many people in New Mexico think that because they have spent a few days in Israel or a Palestinian city, they have the slightest idea what the complexities are of daily life for either side of the conflict. I have a deep-down certainty that if the tables were turned, and terrorists were launching rockets into Las Cruces from the Mexican border, every single peace-loving Santa Fean would petition the U.S. Congress to bomb the hell out of Mexico. They would not petition because they were pro-war, rather because they were pro-survival. It is ridiculous that activist groups in New Mexico, backed by organizations such as Amnesty International, have put up billboards accusing Israel of murdering children without ever acknowledging the fact that Israel serves as a safe haven to groups such as Palestinian homosexuals and Darfur refugees. It is ridiculous that there is a double standard in which Israel is criticized as being a racist and apartheid state for protecting itself against terrorists. All men are created equal Does Israel make mistakes in the process? Yes. However, my comrades and I made a concerted effort, even in the heat of battle, to respect innocent Palestinians as people and to apply the values I learned growing up that all men are created equal. When people generalize Israeli soldiers as being killers, it deeply offends me, and it demeans the efforts the Israeli army takes, and I took, to protect innocent Palestinian lives. It is easy to preach from thousands of miles away without getting your hands dirty and dealing with real life challenges. During my mandatory service, from 2001-2003, I was involved in complex operations during which we entered terrorists’ houses knowing that there were armed terrorists inside – and suspecting that there might be innocent family members inside as well. Instead of blowing the house up like most armies would do under the same circumstances, we risked our lives on numerous occasions to try and save innocent Palestinian lives. So, when ludicrous anti-Israel activists compare Israel to apartheid and the IDF to the Nazis, please remember that the world is complex, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex, and only through complex thinking will any genuine change evolve. This article was first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican Newspaper. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of ISRAEL21c.

Stopping the economic slide

Despite the world’s economic woes, Georgia and other US states continue to actively pursue joint venture opportunities with Israel. Trade between the US and Israel has been hard hit by the current global economic downturn. Once on an ascending curve, bilateral trade peaked at $28 billion in 2008, up 30 percent from 2005 when it was $21.5 billion. Now, however, in light of the financial situation, trade figures are down considerably. Statistics published recently by the Israeli Export & International Cooperation Institute reveal that first quarter 2009 exports to the US are down 38% from the same quarter in 2008. Similarly, imports for the first two months of 2009 from the US are down 24% (a total of $300 million), as compared to the previous year. For example, the State of Georgia, which has a strong record of cooperation and collaboration with Israeli companies, has begun to experience this decline. Financial restrictions we once complained about during the “good times” have actually placed Israel in a position to better weather the downturn than most other western societies. The relatively low level of mortgage debt, the absence of sub-prime mortgages and banks that own the credit cards and, thereby, limit the level of short term debt that any family can amass, all combine to insulate Israel from some of the worst aspects of the downturn. The financial “crisis” the world is experiencing right now is actually a passage through a number of simultaneous transitions, any one of which would be sufficient to “upset the apple cart” as it were, but, taken together, creates an imbalance that will only be righted, if our luck holds out, over the next 18 months and very slowly at that. These transitions include: Transfers of Power: As nationwide elections for new leadership take place around the world, it is impossible to predict what the new fabric of world leadership will be, whether it will be conservative or liberal, predictable or radical, beneficial or detrimental. The Economic Downturn: Not since the great depression of 1929-1933 has the world’s work force had to deal with a downturn as serious as this and, as a result, the world does not have the experience on which to draw that will enable the average working person to cope with the challenges of this new reality. The Psychological Effect: This is the most overlooked effect of the downturn. Without prior experience in dealing with a problem of this magnitude and with people in many western nations, including Israel, having been brought up with a certain sense of entitlement to a better life than that of their parents, disappointment is running rampant. However, despite the current situation, Georgia and other US states continue to actively pursue joint venture opportunities with Israel, demonstrating belief not only in Israeli innovation and technology but in the country’s healthy economic life. With that in mind, the following things need to happen in order to arrest the downward spiral and re-establish confidence in global trade as an antidote to the continued decline of world economies: * We need to stop calling this a crisis and stop focusing on how terrible everything is. Half of economics is psychology and we should communicate that this is a serious, but manageable, problem and that fear and panic should be avoided as the world, united, works on the solution that awaits. * People should be encouraged to spend rationally. What we face now is capital paralysis provoked by shell-shock and conscientious self-reflection. Retreating to narrow, short-term protectionist policies would only serve to deepen the global recession, as it did in the ’30s. * Policy makers must think outside the box to help individuals overcome the massive hits to psychology as a result of losses sustained in capital markets, real estate and job security. * Local governments must help create new jobs and re-train existing workers for higher wage paying industries such as health care, technology and renewable energy. Having said all of this, the fact remains that until these points are addressed, world trade indicators will remain low for some time, as the current numbers show, because Israel is not an island and is very much dependent on global trade for its economic life. The US, as Israel’s biggest export destination, will need to begin to come out of its downward financial spiral before bilateral trade figures reverse their current trend.

In the search for peace, include the people

If you want to make peace in Israel, the Israeli and Palestinian governments need to engage the ordinary people in the process. We’re one third of the way through 2009, but we can already say it has been a hard year for those who want to see two states living in peace, side by side. In the wake of a war that devastated Gaza but failed to stop rocket attacks, continued fractures between the Palestinian leadership, Israeli elections which brought a right-wing coalition into power, and amidst talk of the demise of the two state solution, we find ourselves on shaky ground, looking toward a blurry and uncertain horizon. George Mitchell, US Special Envoy to the Middle East, visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority last week, trying to jump-start a stalled peace process. He carries with him the weight of the Obama Administration’s stated commitment to brokering a two state agreement. But what sort of mandate does he have from those on the ground, those who will be most affected by the outcome of his efforts – the Israeli and Palestinian people? A new poll released by the OneVoice Movement fills in some of the answers – providing a snapshot of where we are, and where we should be going. Building from some of the public opinion and public diplomacy methods employed in the peace process in Northern Ireland, the poll was designed to engage Israelis and Palestinians on final status issues and procedural processes, with questions meant to push beyond the usual, intransigent ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses. The goal was to get to the heart of what people on the ground are willing to accept, and how they think the process should play out. At the macro level, the findings indicate that despite fears to the contrary, the two state solution remains the only resolution that is acceptable to the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians: 74% of Palestinians and 78% of Israelis would be willing to accept a two state solution, while 59% of Palestinians and 66% of Israelis find a single, bi-national state to be unacceptable. A negotiated peace is essential What’s more, Israelis and Palestinians are as convinced as ever that negotiations are the way to get there: 77% of Israelis and 71% of Palestinians find a negotiated peace to be either ‘essential’ or ‘desirable.’ Of course, that’s the macro view, and it’s not the whole story. There are significant gaps in public opinion on the toughest final status issues: Jerusalem, settlements, refugees. And there are even wider gaps on national priorities: the findings imply that mainstream Israeli and Palestinian populations still have yet to acknowledge the significant concerns on the other side. While the issue of greatest significance for Palestinians is freedom from occupation (94% deem it a ‘very significant’ problem in the peace process, ranking it the primary issue on the Palestinian side), only 30% of Israelis find it to be ‘very significant,’ ranking the issue 15th on the Israeli side. Similarly, the primary issue on the Israeli side is stopping attacks on civilians (90% rate it a ‘very significant’ issue). This issue meets with 50% approval on the Palestinian side, and ranks as 19th in a list of 21 issues. So how do we push past the impasse? How do we build consensus? And – perhaps most important – how do we ensure that this process isn’t subject to the same failings of all the others? The poll gives us some interesting answers here, as well. First and foremost, there is a clear desire for civic engagement in the peace process: ordinary Israelis and Palestinians not only want to be informed on negotiations progress, they desire greater involvement in the process. Progress at the negotiating table is only one step in the process of reaching an agreement that can be implemented. An end to the conflict which satisfies the primary needs of both Israelis and Palestinians – end to occupation and assurance of security – will only come when the leaders come to an agreement that their people are ready to understand, accept, and support. And this means civic education, true engagement of the grassroots. Working at the grassroots level Governments alone can’t take this on. They need to work in tandem with civil society groups and grassroots organizations to ensure true connection between the top level negotiations process and the will of the majorities on the ground. As part of this effort, OneVoice is launching a Town Hall Meetings series throughout Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which will start in May and continue throughout 2009. The meetings will use the results of the poll to start critical discussions on final status and mutual recognition issues – to highlight consensus where it already exists, and work toward consensus where there is none. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not impossible – failure is not a foregone conclusion. The shape of an agreement is there, and there is genuine possibility to work toward compromise on even the toughest of final status issues. But without more attention to the process – without a genuine engagement of the people on the ground, who will have to live with whatever agreement is put down on paper – we will inevitably fall victim to the shortcomings and failures of the past. And our children will have to pay the price. About the poll. This poll was commissioned by OneVoice Israel and OneVoice Palestine in collaboration with Dr. Colin Irwin of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool. The fieldwork to develop the questionnaires was undertaken by the research team in Israel and the Palestinian Authority in November and December 2008. The fieldwork for the public opinion polls was undertaken by Nader Said at Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD) of Ramallah and Mina Zemach at Dahaf Institute of Tel Aviv following the elections in Israel in February 2009. Five hundred interviews were completed in Israel and six hundred in the West Bank and Gaza to produce representative samples of both populations in terms of age, gender, social background and geographical distribution. Publication of the results of the polls has been timed to provide the new administration in the US and new government in Israel with information to assist them in developing their policies for peace in the Middle East.

Finding a second chance in Acre

An employment program in Acre is giving women the chance not only to pursue new job opportunities, but also to fulfill their dreams.The word BeAtzmi, which means “on my own” in Hebrew, took on a new and inspiring meaning in March when 25 single mothers from the BeAtzmi program for employment initiatives in Acre graduated from the course. This is the second year BeAtzmi has worked successfully in Acre, changing the lives of single women, who for the first time in their lives are being offered the chance to pursue their occupational dreams and fulfill themselves on both professional and personal levels. The ceremony took place at a local community center and the audience was filled with the proud family members of the participants: children, parents and siblings. One by one, each woman presented her occupational dream. Most of them were only one step away from meeting their targets. An interesting aspect of this program is the process of true empowerment these individuals undergo. Most of these women became mothers before the age of 20 and were in troubled marriages; they could not even allow themselves to remember their dreams. Participants say that the program has made them better citizens and better parents; they now want their children to have a positive role model. They know that the best way forward is to keep trying hard, not to give up and always continue to pursue their dreams. Several factors enabled the success of this program, a joint venture of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto as part of the Israel Emergency Campaign funds, Strauss Group, the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee and the Acre municipality. Providing new skills Firstly, it provides its participants with employability skills. Additionally, deeply committed staff members, a coordinator and a professional mentor, provide the main pillars of success. The program also provides close follow-up and personal coaching, which have proven to be very effective. BeAtzmi works in full cooperation with the Acre municipality and their partnership is very strong, to the point that the program’s staff works hand in hand with the municipality. The BeAtzmi women’s group was appreciative of the support it received. The participants felt that this was the first time in their lives when someone believed in them enough to give them a chance. So many of the personal stories were fascinating, but there is one that stood out in particular for me. Ayala, a single woman with one child, worked cleaning houses all of her adult life. Several years ago, she lost her spouse when he died of cancer. More than ever, life seemed hopeless to Ayala and her son. She was encouraged to move to Australia where her sister lives, but after almost a year, she returned home because, as she admits: “I realized that I merely took all of my problems with me, and I saw that there was no benefit to being in a different geographic location.” Education and empowerment Upon returning to Israel, she learned that her other sister had participated in BeAtzmi the year before. Seeing the impact of the program on her sister, she was determined to join too. Ayala’s dream was always to become a beautician, but she did not know how to go about achieving this dream. The BeAtzmi workshops helped Ayala regain her self-confidence, an important part of becoming empowered, and, step-by-step, she is now undergoing professional training. At this point, reaching her occupational dream has become realistic. Following Ayala’s emotional presentation, her son jumped up to hug her, and her mother, who was in the crowd, silently cried tears of joy. Ayala says: “BeAtzmi gave me a chance I never thought I would have in my life: to be a happy, fulfilled person who can proudly support my family. I do not want to rely on anyone but myself.” And on a personal note, in my capacity as director of UIA Canada’s Israel Emergency Campaign, I have had the privilege to occasionally take part in BeAtzmi’s meetings, and I must say that watching the graduation was enlightening. This day and age when so many people are losing jobs – my fellow colleagues in the philanthropic world, people in the high-tech industry, and others – it emphasizes that all of us are vulnerable. And these women, despite the odds, despite their hardships of coming from a low socio-economic background and having to raise children on their own, found it within themselves to take control of their lives and fulfill their dreams.