September 22, 2008

Imagine what could be achieved in the Middle East if Israeli innovation and enterprise was combined with Arab funding and creativity.In the wake of the Kadima party’s primary elections, the process of replacing Israel’s prime minister will begin in earnest. The leading candidates, as one would expect, have been discussing the familiar litany of problems facing the country: the threat from Iran, the challenge from Hamas, the dangers posed by Hezbollah, and the conflict with Palestinians and Arab countries.

Considering the long list of grave dangers, it might seem surprising that Israel’s economy is not flashing distress signals. In fact, while the global economy has split into two camps – one swimming in oil wealth, the other limping partly because of the high price of oil – Israel, a country with almost no natural resources, has just reported its best unemployment rate in more than two decades.

To be sure, Israel’s economy will slow down because it is deeply intertwined with the rest of the world. But it has kept growing strongly despite an international credit spasm and a spike in commodity prices. One can only imagine the explosion of prosperity that would follow if real peace were achieved in the Middle East.

Glimpses of potential

We can already see glimpses of the potential. In Dubai, the dazzling emirate that dares to be different, an Israeli-born Italian architect, David Fisher, will build another astonishing addition to the Gulf skyline. The 80-floor tower will feature floors that rotate independently, changing the shape of the building and the views from each window. The undulating structure will produce its own energy, with solar-power cells on the roof of each floor. The idea is revolutionary for many reasons, beginning with the birthplace of the architect. Arab countries don’t do business with Israelis. But Israelis have much to contribute, and progressive Arabs working with them could create world-transforming partnerships.

Israel today attracts more foreign investment than anyone, except the United States and the European Union, because its entrepreneurs and scientists have proven that they can produce and innovate. Israeli products and inventions touch all of our lives.

Israel has what the Arab world needs. And Israelis would rejoice in true partnerships with their Arab neighbors.

Until now, the Arab Middle East has looked like a grotesque display of haves and have-nots. Oil-rich countries have splurged on luxuries while importing servants and cheap labor from poor neighbors. Israel, meanwhile – and, for a time, Lebanon – built an economy that relies on the skills and talents of its people. Israeli prosperity created thousands of jobs for Palestinians, until suicide bombings led to check points and dreadful difficulties for West Bank and Gaza residents.

A vibrant economy

Despite wars, violence, and political scandals, Israel has kept investing in its people and creating a vibrant economy that could one-day help remake the entire region.

Last year, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development invited Israel to apply for membership. The exclusive OECD brings together 30 of the world’s richest economies that are committed to democracy and free markets.

Undeterred by political scandals and by defense spending – far exceeding US aid to Israel – that sucks out a huge portion of the national income, Israel has an exceptional educational system that stimulates creativity and independent thinking. The country has some of the world’s highest rates of university graduates, of doctorates, book production, technology companies, patents, innovation, discoveries, and much more.

The Arab world has always had enormous potential and, for a time, it produced great knowledge. Then came cultural stagnation. But that will change one day.

Much of the region has been derailed by war, extremism, and despotism. Precious time and treasure have been wasted. Israel, meanwhile, has focused on survival – and has thrived.

Last year, for example, the government decided to give a big push to electric cars. Israel will become the world’s lab for electric cars, with participation from several European companies, and Israeli technology and government incentives to create a national network for electric transportation.

Israel doesn’t have to be an isolated island of innovation. Can we imagine the citizens of a place like Dubai joining hands with Israelis to seek alternatives to oil? Picture that: Gulf oil money and talent working with Israelis pursuing the future beyond oil, or tackling global warming; or working together to build on Israeli inventions that lower water usage in that parched part of the world. Israeli ingenuity and resourcefulness, plus Arab funding and creativity, could turn the Middle East into a region of peace and prosperity, instead of one of violence and extremism.

For now, however, one hears the politicians and returns back to today’s reality. For now, it’s about facing dangers and focusing on survival.

Printed with permission from Frida Ghitis

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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