A start-up Middle East - the Peres vision


                                                                                                             Chemi Peres

For most of his long political career Shimon Peres, who eventually became Israel’s 9th president, cherished the vision of a peaceful Israel prospering within a peaceful Middle East.  Back in 1996, determined to do something positive to help realize his dream, he founded the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.  Non-profitmaking, non-political, non-governmental, the Peres Center has for the past 21 years sought to be a source of inspiration about peace, both within and outside Israel.  It has devoted itself to initiating. developing and implementing innovative and cutting-edge joint ventures with Israel’s neighbors working across a variety of fields including medicine, business, the environment, peace education and high-tech innovation.
Just a year ago, in July 2016, only two months before his death, Shimon Peres laid the foundation for an impressive extension to his Center, involving a major expansion of its activities.  In the presence of President Reuven Rivlin, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, and leading figures from Israel’s high-tech industry, Peres launched the Israeli Innovation Center project. 
Its purpose was to be twofold: first, to showcase Israel’s innovative achievements in high-tech, current and in development; and secondly to demonstrate that innovation, science and technology have neither limits nor barriers, that they foster dialogue between individuals and between nations. The hope was that the new Innovation Center would become an educational hub, drawing guests from around the world both to learn about Israel's high-tech activities past, present and in the making, and to absorb the Center’s core values of innovation, optimism and the pursuit of peace, and that these visitors would be inspired and empowered to influence their communities and the world. 
"All my life,” said Peres at the launch, “I have worked to ensure that Israel's future is based on science and technology as well as on an unwavering moral commitment. They called me a dreamer. But who would have believed that the entire world would one day use Israeli navigation software in their daily lives? Who would have believed that millions of people would utilize an Israeli-developed stent implanted in damaged heart arteries allowing sick patients to breathe? Who would have predicted that we could give paralyzed individuals the ability to walk through robotic legs that were created in Israel? Our innovative spirit has been recognized the world over, and of course, my heart swells with pride when I see how many nations turn to the tiny State of Israel to learn from our bold innovations, to learn how to turn the impossible into the possible." 
“Peres has always been a dreamer, an optimist,” said Netanyahu. “He has been at the forefront of Israeli innovation, always in the pursuit of peace. The Israeli Innovation Center is yet another milestone along Peres's lifelong journey. Israel has much to share with its neighbors in the region. And this Innovation Center will be the first step on the long path to building a start-up region, an innovation region, a region of peace.”
Netanyahu’s prediction is being carried forward today by Shimon Peres’s son, Chemi  (short for Nechemiah), who now chairs the Peres Center’s board of management.  Although he is also CEO of Pitango, Israel's largest venture capital fund, his life now seems bound up in his father’s legacy. He travels the world promoting the Peres vision, which he interprets as finding ways to bring Israel-scale economic and political success to a fractured Arab world, “expanding the ‘start-up nation’ into the ‘start-up region.'”
He sees potential in the Arab world for an explosion of innovation, and with it of prosperity,.  The key is a technology economy.
"A country that adopts this," he says, “can rise from poverty and ignorance, change its capabilities, change the [economic] climate. Once you’re a country that has these abilities, you find other countries to trade with.”
On the face of it, he says, it seems crazy to advocate investing in the Middle East, given its current chaos. “But China 25 years ago was seen the same way. Look at Saudi Arabia, where the young prince Mohammad bin Salman has a 2030 plan that talks about turning Saudi Arabia into an innovation country.”  As for Israel, “it’s coming close to $40,000 GDP per capita. What changed Israel is two things: the need to innovate to survive, and the interest of global companies. 350 foreign companies employ half the Israeli high-tech industry.”
Chemi Peres meets many technology companies and investors looking for new opportunities in Israel. He urges them to take advantage of what Israel can offer them, but also to look further afield and consider investing in the broader Middle East.  He tries to encourage global companies to establish research centers in the Arab world and work with universities to create a high-tech economy  and an Arabic internet. Shimon Peres’s Innovation Center wants to encourage the Arab world to exploit that potential.
“It’s in everyone’s interest,” said Chemi Peres. “A region that grows economically is safer, creates less terror. And it’s already happening. Chinese companies …American companies... I say to the Arab world, take this forward, and it will take you forward.”

The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review.   His latest book is: “The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016”.  He blogs at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com