Peres sees the light

The President’s “Tomorrow” conference launched several complex initiatives whose success depends on public and private sector cooperation. Can he make it work?The impressive “Tomorrow” conference that President Shimon Peres gathered for Israel’s 60th anniversary was a great public relations coup, no mean achievement considering Israel’s dismal image abroad. But the ever-so-ambitious Peres had more than just public relations in mind. He wanted no less than to chart Israel’s future by studying almost all the challenges facing Israel, the Jewish people and even the world and then framing a comprehensive agenda for tomorrow.

The conference did indeed launch several initiatives – from planning the course of the Jewish people to digging a Peace Canal between the Red and the Dead Seas; but whether even some of these ambitious plans will actually materialize remains to be seen. Not only because they are immense, complex and objectively hard to “plan” and execute, but because their implementation largely depends on government and public sector cooperation with third way NGOs and/or private sector enterprises, a blend that has never worked successfully.

We know how well governments perform, world-wide and especially in Israel, where the role of government is so overwhelming and so anti-productive. Over 75% of Israeli government resolutions are never implemented, some would say mercifully so, because when they are, the results are dismal. Just look at what happened to the Galilee and the Negev or for that matter to all development towns, even to Jerusalem, all those places that governments tried to “develop.” Billions later they are usually worse off because governments, left or “right,” are not productive entities. They are focused, as they apparently must be, on discriminating and anti-productive political work, and they cannot implement their plans without fostering huge bureaucracies.

It is not accidental that all government-generated five- and 10-year development plans have universally failed, not only in Communist or Socialist regimes but also in so-called “mixed” (more accurately mixed up) economies such as Israel’s. The many plans for overcoming poverty and the “income gap,” costing billions and wasting precious resources, all failed. They also misdirected resources from market-generated productive activities, such as small businesses. Instead of economic growth, these government plans generated anti-productive and corruption-enhancing bureaucracies that abuse their power and make it impossible for productive enterprises to thrive.

A little late in his life (but as the saying goes “better late than never”) – and painfully late in the history of the state of Israel – Peres has been recently singing some really new tunes. After decades of employing massive state intervention to implement his visions, at high costs and very poor results (it worked once – we do not know at what cost, of course – when the far-sighted Peres helped Israel enter the atomic energy club), Peres recently started lauding the role of private enterprise in various developments projects. In his inimitable way, Peres claimed that industrial parks and hotels could better secure the peace in disputed border areas such as the Golan Heights and the Arava than fortifications and armed brigades. He neglected to mention, however, that in the foreseeable future, industrial parks and tourism in such contested areas will need the protection of a very strong force to survive, or they will meet the fate of the industrial parks and the hothouses that have been looted and set on fire by some of our neighbors who do not share yet Peres’ admirable understanding of the link between economic prosperity and peace.

Peres went even further. He lauded international trade and globalization for generating development and peace, making governments and their efforts look puny if not irrelevant. A really remarkable change of heart for a man who spent his entire life in politics and in government generated development schemes and who only recently branded the market economy as “piggish Capitalism”.

Even more remarkably Peres suited action to words and appointed one of Israel’s most remarkable entrepreneurs, Yitzhak Tshuva – a man known for his daring and flare, but more importantly a man with the ability to translate his bold visions into reality – as the chief implementer of his major project, the Red-Dead Sea Canal. If there is a person who could conceivably cut through the tangled ticket of bureaucracies that could block a project that is dependent on the cooperation of not only the notoriously uncooperative and resistant Israeli bureaucracy but also on the not less “talented” Jordanian bureaucracy (at least in Jordan there is someone – the king – who can keep the bureaucracy in check sometimes) it is a person like Tshuva. It is a stroke of true creativity on the part of Peres to have entrusted this project in his capable hands.

That said, the jury is still out on the fate of all projects that involve deep cooperation between the public and the private sector. Getting the two to cooperate is like mixing water with oil. It will take some doing to get a good working relationship between an entrepreneur that understands the economic opportunities and constraints of such projects, that knows to assess risk and to manage it, a person who has the flexibility and knowledge to deal with unforeseen contingencies, and the politically-rather-than-economically-oriented, risk averse and rigid bureaucracy.

We can only pray and hope that Peres’ vision of tomorrow will not turn out into another manyana.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

People vs. Dinosaurs

Who would you put your money on? Warren Buffett or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?Tefen Industrial Park, Israel

Question: What do America’s premier investor, Warren Buffett, and Iran’s toxic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have in common? Answer: They’ve both made a bet about Israel’s future.

Ahmadinejad declared on Monday that Israel “has reached its final phase and will soon be wiped out from the geographic scene.”

By coincidence, I heard the Iranian leader’s statement on Israel Radio just as I was leaving the headquarters of Iscar, Israel’s famous precision tool company, headquartered in the Western Galilee, near the Lebanon border. Iscar is known for many things, most of all for being the first enterprise that Buffett bought overseas for his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway.

Buffett paid $4 billion for 80 percent of Iscar and the deal just happened to close a few days before Hezbollah, a key part of Iran’s holding company, attacked Israel in July 2006, triggering a month long war. I asked Iscar’s chairman, Eitan Wertheimer, what was Buffett’s reaction when he found out that he had just paid $4 billion for an Israeli company and a few days later Hezbollah rockets were landing outside its parking lot.

Buffett just brushed it off with a wave, recalled Wertheimer: “He said, ‘I’m not interested in the next quarter. I’m interested in the next 20 years.’ “Wertheimer repaid that confidence by telling half his employees to stay home during the war and using the other half to keep the factory from not missing a day of work and setting a production record for the month. It helps when many of your “employees” are robots that move around the buildings, beeping humans out of the way.

So who would you put your money on? Buffett or Ahmadinejad? I’d short Ahmadinejad and go long Warren Buffett.

Why? From outside, Israel looks as if it’s in turmoil, largely because the entire political leadership seems to be under investigation. But Israel is a weak state with a strong civil society. The economy is exploding from the bottom up. Israel’s currency, the shekel, has appreciated nearly 30 percent against the dollar since the start of 2007.

The reason? Israel is a country that is hard-wired to compete in a flat world. It has a population drawn from 100 different countries, speaking 100 different languages, with a business culture that strongly encourages individual imagination and adaptation and where being a nonconformist is the norm. While you were sleeping, Israel has gone from oranges to software, or as they say around here, from Jaffa to Java.

The day I visited the Iscar campus, one of its theaters was filled with industrialists from the Czech Republic, who were getting a lecture – in Czech – from Iscar experts. The Czechs came all the way to the Israel-Lebanon border region to learn about the latest innovations in precision tool-making. Wertheimer is famous for staying close to his customers and the latest technologies. “If you sleep on the floor,” he likes to say, “you never have to worry about falling out of bed.”

That kind of hunger explains why, in the first quarter of 2008, the top four economies after America in attracting venture capital for start-ups were: Europe $1.53 billion, China $719 million, Israel $572 million and India $99 million, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. Israel, with seven million people, attracted almost as much as China, with 1.3 billion.

Boaz Golany, who heads engineering at the Technion, Israel’s M.I.T., told me: “In the last eight months, we have had delegations from IBM, General Motors, Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart visiting our campus. They are all looking to develop R&D centers in Israel.”

Ahmadinejad professes not to care about such things. He was – to put it in American baseball terms – born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. Because oil prices have gone up to nearly $140 a barrel, he feels relaxed predicting that Israel will disappear, while Iran maintains a welfare state – with more than 10 percent unemployment.

Iran has invented nothing of importance since the Islamic Revolution, which is a shame. Historically, Iranians have been a dynamic and inventive people – one only need look at the richness of Persian civilization to see that. But the Islamic regime there today does not trust its people and will not empower them as individuals.

Of course, oil wealth can buy all the software and nuclear technology you want, or can’t develop yourself. This is not an argument that we shouldn’t worry about Iran. Ahmadinejad should, though.

Iran’s economic and military clout today is largely dependent on extracting oil from the ground. Israel’s economic and military power today is entirely dependent on extracting intelligence from its people. Israel’s economic power is endlessly renewable. Iran’s is a dwindling resource based on fossil fuels made from dead dinosaurs.

So who will be here in 20 years? I’m with Buffett: I’ll bet on the people who bet on their people – not the people who bet on dead dinosaurs.

Reprinted by courtesy of The New York Times.

Sderot residents yearn to be seen as more than just victims

Sderot may have suffered eight years of Kassam rocket attacks, but it’s also a vibrant and socially active city.After enduring Kassam rocket attacks for eight years, residents of Sderot and the surrounding area want the world to see them in a different light.

“We want the Jewish community to know the situation here,” said Avi Sulemani, who runs Sderot’s community center.

“It’s a kind of solidarity with the city. We want the wider world to know that we’re a community looking for peace, that we want peace. We cleared out of Gaza [in 2005] because we want peace.”

Like many residents, Sulemani thinks that the world sees Sderot as a war zone or military stronghold. But there are those who want to show the rest of the world – including much of Israel’s population – that Sderot can be a vibrant city. Social programs have been created throughout the area, encouraging residents to interact with each other in communal settings.

“Life here is stronger than any Kassam rocket,” said Talia Levanon, a representative of the Israel Trauma Coalition. “The city is standing its ground and the residents will never leave.” One of those activists is Amit Lerner, who moved to Sderot a year and a half ago to work with the youth population there. In addition to helping those who have just finished army service find jobs and go to college, she guides groups of 18- to 24-year olds who want to galvanize young leadership in the area.

“The communal aspect [of my work] connects them to the city,” said Lerner of the discharged soldiers. “They run cultural programs for the community. They are very active in volunteering. Young people are the strength of the city.”

The city’s schools have also set up a support system to help children deal with the daily trauma by holding yoga classes and group therapy sessions for students that include work with animals and team-building exercises.

“Therapists have become part of the culture of the school,” said Beth Raise, the director of the Joint Distribution Committee’s Havens of Calm Room at Alon Madaiim Elementary School, where much of the social work takes place. “It’s kind of like a family. Through their presence at the school they [also] provide support for the teachers.”

Even so, some children are having trouble living with the terror. Liza, a 10-year-old whose family moved to Sderot from Kharkhov in the Ukraine when she was three, says that she can’t see her friends on a regular basis.

“I can’t go out with friends or walk around because of the Kassams,” she said. “When there are Kassams, we all need to stay at home. We plan things, but we can’t go out.” Liza added that her family hasn’t adjusted to life in Israel due to the Kassams, and that they miss the calmer life in Eastern Europe.

“They brought us from a relatively good life, a calm life, to life here, with the Kassams,” she said. “All of the neighbors there were friendly. That’s impossible here because we can’t go out. We try to continue [with everyday life], but it’s hard.”

Another resource exists for children in groups of area teens who hold programs to enliven the town. One student, who plays a clown for bar mitzva parties, says that acting helps distract the children from the situation in addition to providing an escape for the actors.

“I entertain the children,” she said. “They don’t have a lot of activities they can go to and their parents don’t have the ability to act like clowns, so I can make them happy. It also makes me happy. It gives me a pleasant feeling.”

One of the ways the area is hoping to galvanize social and cultural activity is through Sapir College, which boasts a student body of some 8,000 students and is one of the area’s largest employers. One student there is happy with the atmosphere on campus but wants students to focus on solutions to the situation rather than on ways to avoid the attacks.

“If we want to change something, it needs to come from here,” she said. “People need to oppose the [attacks] themselves, not just figure out how to deal with them. It’s impossible to [completely] defend this place.”

She also hopes to see more dialogue between Israeli and Gazan students, whom she says want the same things.

“[Dialogue] is what will improve things,” she said. “Everyone wants quiet and peace here. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t want to live. [Gazans] experience the same things we do. They also live lives that aren’t lives and they’ve also lost friends and relatives. Once you recognize that you can talk about everything else.”

While Sderot residents are trying to improve their lives, many have called on the government to pay more attention and direct more resources to the situation.

But some believe that instead of relying on the government, the town should attempt to create as positive an environment as possible. “Sderot is presented to the world as a city with a lot of wretchedness,” said Lerner. “Despite everything, there are social projects for teens, for young people. People haven’t lost hope.”

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

Roots, reality and Israel’s 60th

In Israel, more people get up each day and go to work trying to make the world a better place, than get up and do anything related to the conflict with our neighbors.It was a proud and glorious week when Israel, her 7.2 million citizens and millions of friends around the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of Israel’s birth as a modern, democratic nation.

Now, world leaders will join us in joyful ceremonies; flags will fly, anthems will play and the progress Israel has made toward the fulfillment of the ideals and aspirations of an ancient people in their modern state will be lauded.

The joy will be tempered by memories of loss and by the challenges and threats that continue as a daily part of Israeli life those same 60 years later. But in all, it will be a visible celebration of human achievement that can bolster hope in a difficult part of the world. It will be the stuff of ceremonies and tableaux, visible, stirring and meaningful.

As a proud Israeli, I will join that celebration here in Los Angeles, but not just the pomp and circumstance. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, if you will, or the part of the tree that lives above the ground. My celebration will seek that which is not so easily seen: the roots of a tree that give it life and stability; the underwater bulk of an iceberg that makes it massively powerful. You see, from my perspective, Angelenos and most of the people of the world see only the smaller, more visible part of the Israeli experience and reality.

What they don’t see are the roots that modern Israeli society has grown outward to connect with the rest of the world; what they don’t feel is the massive impact that Israeli companies have on the global economy; what they don’t know is how often in their everyday lives they are touched by modern Israel through the research, innovation and creativity that are the larger output of the total Israeli endeavor each day.

Most Angelenos “touch” Israel literally dozens of times each day; they just don’t know it. Be it the ingenuity of the Intel team in Israel that created the dual-core processor architecture now driving all of the PCs and Macs, the prominence of the Israeli software that safeguard our Internet connections, the major Israeli contributions to the very invention and continued development of cellphone technology or the ubiquity of Israeli software in the creation of voice mail boxes, instant messaging and customer service programs, there is “Israel Inside” almost everywhere; we just don’t know it, but it benefits us all every day.

There are hundreds of Americans alive today – and tens of thousands of others around the world – because of the ingenious “camera-in-a-pill” designed by Israel’s Given Imaging. This brilliant diagnostic imaging device is but one of many Israeli contributions helping better diagnose disease, just as Copaxone, a leading drug used to treat multiple sclerosis, is but one of many Israeli advances in treating disease. Ask any neurologist or endocrinologist about the level and quality of medical research being conducted in Israel today – in stem cells, diabetes or in neurodegenerative diseases – and they will tell you that Israelis are leaders in these fields and more, often in collaboration with Americans.

This is the work of Israelis; it should be the hallmark of our first 60 years and the legacy upon which our future is conceived and built. In a part of the world where many nations are blessed with enormous mineral wealth, our country has had but one natural resource: the curiosity, ingenuity and determination of our nation – immigrants from more than 180 countries – to create first a national homeland and then a society dedicated to making the world a better place. And, we do this despite our ongoing geopolitical and security challenges.

It’s time for the world to pay almost as much attention to Israeli organizations – like Save a Child’s Heart, which provides free treatment for Third World children with life-threatening heart ailments, or to the millions of lives saved by Israeli ingenuity with water conservation and irrigation — as it does to the violence in our region that we would hope to end forever.

As Israel turns 60, it is time for Americans to look below the surface and see the roots that now connect us – all of us, every day – by the way the diversity and creativity of the Israeli people and its extraordinary economy become integrated with Los Angeles and the world. Now is the time for Americans to see the larger part of Israel that is either submerged or obscured from view by the smoke of the conflict – the everyday reality of daily life in Israel that exists beyond the images of conflict.

Here, Angelenos and Americans will find an Israel where more people get up each day and go to work trying to make the world a better place, than get up each day and do anything related to the conflict with our neighbors. The number of people who are involved with basic and applied scientific research, biotech, biomed and health care research and product development is far greater than the number of people involved with security – the number of people working in Israel’s high-tech industry alone exceeds the number of people in the military.

These Israelis are adding value to the world every single day. These Israelis are what root us to the rest of the world; they are the bulk of that which we create; they are what we hope the world will come to see and appreciate about Israel, as we begin our seventh decade.

This article was first published in The Los Angeles Jewish Journal

Grooving at the Sea of Galilee

Jacob’s ladder has grown from a modest folk music festival, into a world music extravaganza that appeals to young and old, Anglo and Israeli alike.From its humble beginnings 32 years ago as a modest folk music festival geared primarily to the English speaking community in Israel, Jacob’s Ladder has evolved into a three-day bluegrass, country, blues and world music extravaganza that appeals to thousands of both Anglos and Israelis, from teenagers to 60+ old timers.

The latest edition of Jacob’s Ladder was held last weekend at its permanent home of Kibbutz Nof Ginosar along the Sea of Galilee just north of Tiberias. The musical line up featured a number of international acts including last year’s headliners, The Abrams Brothers, one of the country music scene’s preeminent banjo and fiddle-playing bluegrass acts. The Canadian-born Abrams Brothers – consisting of dad, two brothers, a cousin and two world-class banjo players from the US – had the younger set swooning.

Other star performers who came from overseas to perform at this year’s festival included Pete Morton, a British ex-punk rocker who turned to raucous guitar driven folk after hearing a Buffy Sainte-Marie record some 30 years ago; North Carolina-based “quirky folk singer and poet” Utah Greene; singer songwriter Sonia Rutstein, who goes by the stage name of SONiA (yes, correct spelling) and blends world music, folk, pop and Middle Eastern rhythms in English, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew; and TRiAD, a rather weak three piece who performed oddly arranged interpretations of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Locally grown talent at Jacob’s Ladder included Avital Raz, who studied Indian classical music in Varanasi for five years and performs an eclectic mix of folk pop with Indian undertones; Sandy Cash, whose humorous ditties always make us smile (the song about a truck that accidentally dumps a load of Viagra in the local water supply is an all-time classic); Tal Koreneberg’s Bodhran band, perhaps Israel’s only double bagpipe jammers playing Irish, Celtic and Scottish folk tunes; and my personal favorite, Iyam who got the crowd dancing to a mix of Hebrew and English reggae and rap.

Jacob’s Ladder is more than just music, however. There are tai chi sessions, a clown workshop for the kids, a chai zulafor the cool set to chill out; and lots of country, line and square dancing. My wife Jody has been going to a monthly “contra” dancing in Jerusalem to which I’ve steadfastly refused to attend, on the grounds that I “don’t like anything with steps.” Jody dragged me into the first session at Jacob’s Ladder and before long I was hooked. What fun!

Despite a crowd in the thousands, Jacob’s Ladder never feels oppressive. There are three main stages and, other than Friday night when everyone spreads a sheet on the grass and grooves to the main acts, activities are pretty loose. Some people take a dip in the pool, others browse the arts and crafts area. The lobby of the hotel is always happening with impromptu jam sessions into the wee hours of the night.

Politeness and honesty are an unspoken rule of thumb. You can leave your stuff anywhere and no one will take it. If someone sits in your chair, there are no arguments when you return. Smoking is the exception rather than the rule. There is a laid back, free flowing feeling to the whole event that serves as an antidote, however brief, to the stresses of day to day living in Israel. In short, we love it.

Over the years, Jacob’s Ladder has become less Anglo and more Israeli. That’s in part due to the Israeli-born children of the original attendees who have grown up at Jacob’s Ladder and seem to know all the Israeli and Irish dances by heart (the mosh pit to the side of the main stage was grooving big time Friday night – even I plunged into the midst of the “scene”). There is also a fair representation of Israeli adults who enjoy the music and casual scene.

The overwhelming secular nature of Jacob’s Ladder has also changed in recent years. An increasing number of Orthodox families now attend the festival. The kippa-wearing crowd has its own minyan by the lake Friday night and seems to find no contradiction between Shabbat observance and listening to great music.

Attendees can buy “scrip” in advance so that food purchases can be made without spending real shekels over the weekend. We ate a “proper” Shabbat dinner in the Nof Ginosar dining hall which has one of the better buffets I’ve eaten at a kibbutz hotel.

Our friends call us a bit spoiled. While nearly everyone camps – the grounds of the kibbutz guest house are covered by a sea of tents – we booked a simple but functional room in the pundak, a country style inn with nice pinewood furniture, where we could sleep on a real bed and take a real shower. Despite several derisive comments on our refusal to rough it, that didn’t stop our friends from using our bathroom and fridge.

At the end of the weekend, as the music died down and the afternoon sun began to wane, we wandered down to the Kinneret, pulled a couple of plastic chairs down to the rocky beach and dangled our feet in the cool water. It was a perfect end to a fabulous weekend.

Will we be back? Undoubtedly. We’ve already booked our room for 2009…