The profits of peace

Multimillionaire Yossi Vardi, the founding father of Israel's Internet industry, has co-founded an Israeli-Palestinian business council which he hopes will aid peace-building efforts in the region.

yossi vardi 88 298 (photo credit: )
yossi vardi 88 298
(photo credit: )
After making his fortune from the invention of the technology behind instant messaging, multimillionaire Yossi Vardi has co-founded an Israeli-Palestinian business council which he hopes will aid peace-building efforts in the region. "The business community is rising up and saying that we also have to do something," Vardi explains. "We cannot just sit back and expect that everybody else will do the work for us. Stability in the Middle East will be based on political, economic and social foundations, but the three of them have to work together." He says the council is needed to inspire greater confidence among foreign entrepreneurs who are looking to invest in the region. As the wealthy reach deep into their pockets, he hopes that economic progress will strengthen the position of political moderates, encouraging more Palestinians and Israelis to reach out to each other. "We see more and more concerned businesspeople on both sides, " Vardi says. "I also met with concerned Palestinians - people who have the feeling that enough is enough and that the 10 million people between the sea and the river are entitled to something better than what they get now." The council was first announced in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, when those who control the purse strings of the global economy descended on the upmarket Swiss ski resort to discuss the world's failings. However, on this occasion they had firmly banked on tackling the issue of peace in the Middle East. Two months later, Vardi admits that they are still in the early stages of forming the committee, which is expected to hold its inaugural assembly at a special WEF economic forum on the Middle East in Jordan at the end of May. "I do not yet know how it will work, " he says frankly. "But I know one thing: If we do not try, nothing will happen. But the fact that I can sit and talk today with Palestinian businesspeople - who are very astute and very impressive and very sophisticated - in an honest way is something which, until 1993, didn't exist. So I think we have a somewhat better understanding of each other, but we have to empower them to provide security and all the other necessary ingredients for peace." Some 200 other CEOs, including leading Palestinian businessman Abdul Malek Jaber, are set to join Vardi on the council. However, in Vardi's case, his involvement is simply the next stage in a long career of combining business with the pleasure of politics. In addition to co-founding and investing in more than 40 companies, including Israel Chemicals and the Israel Oil Company - he has acted as chairman for both - Vardi also found the time for a vocation in the civil service. While serving as the director-general of the Energy Ministry and adviser to the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Finance, he participated in the peace negotiations with Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. At the age of 27, he was also the youngest person ever to be appointed director-general of the Ministry of Development. Vardi, however, argues that his own accomplishments, and particularly those in Israel's hi-tech industry, are a result of the successes of the state itself. "At the very beginning of the hi-tech process you need two things - entrepreneurship and creativity, " he explains. "They are like the seeds in agriculture, the catalysts in the chemical industry or the enzymes in a biochemical process. In Israel we have a great concentration of these two very essential inputs." Making it in this business, according to Vardi, does not therefore require a degree in advanced physics or the brainpower of a mathematical genius. All it takes is a good Jewish mother. "This sense of industrious innovation comes from the value system kids are learning at home," he says. "It has something to do with the family value of the quest for excellence, accomplishment and achievement. This is something the people here suck in with their mother's milk. "Israeli success also comes from the IDF and all the young people who take risks and are willing to go to work for the cause," he continues. "It comes from the whole notion of pioneering which has been fundamental to Israel in the last century." In his view, there is little difference between building a state and constructing a profitable business or between defending one's national territory and standing one's ground in business negotiations. However, with the announcement of this new Israeli-Palestinian business council, it seems that the time has come for the commercial sector to return the favor. Just as the IDF has been unwittingly priming some of the world's greatest businessmen, the entrepreneurs of the region are now preparing for service as some of the best frontline peacemakers. And if Vardi has his way, Israel's next big deal will be struck in the profitable business of peace. Vardi on the phenomenon that made him his fortune The Internet, according to Yossi Vardi, has given us the kind of buzzing social lives that we just couldn't have managed on our own. "The main contribution of the Internet is that it has empowered people's personal lives," he says. "It enables us to express ourselves, to share, to collaborate, to participate, to communicate." It is perhaps no wonder that Vardi has such a positive take on the Internet's effect on our lives. After all, it has helped to make him a multimillionaire. Back in 1996, Vardi provided his son and three eager friends with a few hundred thousand dollars to set up their own company. He became the chairman of his son's new enterprise, Mirabilis, which soon went on to invent ICQ - the computer program that pioneered instant messaging. Two years later, the business was sold to AOL for a staggering $400 million. "Instant messaging has become such a huge success for a number of reasons," Vardi explains. "The Internet for the first time has been able to provide people with an easy and non-intrusive way of communicating. When you send a letter, the time delay between asking and being answered is too long. When you are on a telephone call, it is too immersive. You can't do other things as you have to be on the line the whole time." In other words, the Internet has come up with the perfect way of making friends and staying friends with a minimum of effort. And with Amazon, AOL, the Bank of Israel, Bezeq, Israel Electric, the World Bank, the UN and the Mexican government all queuing up for his advice, it seems that Vardi's knack for spotting the next big thing has earned him a few more friends.