Making sense of Israel: A 60-year-old start-up

I haven't been back to this part of the world in over two decades. Reading about the changes is one thing. Seeing them up close is quite something else.

TEL AVIV, Israel--Watching the news from Israel over the last several years, it sometimes seems that the political culture in the country is broken. Yet at the same time, the economic and entrepreneurial trends seem stronger than ever. I've never been able to explain that contradiction. Now that I'm back in Israel, a country where I worked several years in the 1980s, that contradiction is more striking than ever.

As always, the "matzav" or the security situation, dominates discussions here. Just prior to my arrival, the Israeli cabinet OK'd a controversial prisoner swap with Hezbollah in return for two abducted Israeli soldiers believed to be dead.

Maybe it's the Israeli knack for compartmentalization, but the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists I've been meeting on this trip take the security question more in stride than do the outsiders. They continue to wax optimistic about prospects for the country's high-tech industry, particularly in the area of clean technology. And even though most would agree with Eric Benhamou's apercu that Israel is a 60-year-old start-up, one that's often overlooked strategic aims in favor of the tactical, the "return on investment" is enviable. In 1950, Israel had average annual gross domestic product of $3,500. Last year, it was $22,500.

As with previous years, the Internet continues to attract a lot of interest, but venture capitalist Chemi Perestold me that now life sciences and, especially, energy are the new, new growing areas.

"I think that potentially those are new sectors where Israel can stand in the forefront of technology," Peres said. "The issue is whether our market can become aware of changes in the world at the same time that others are. This is one of the critical factors related to the long-term perspective of the Israeli technology sector. We need to be aware of changes--if not ahead of everybody--then definitely no later than anybody else. Because we are far away from markets, the result is that sometimes we start things with a delay, which is not so good."

I'll have more over the next couple of days, including a one-on-one with Israel's richest man, Stef Wertheimer, now in his eighth decade, who remains undeterred by regional unrest and insists there is time to enlist business in the cause of peace in the Middle East.

 

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