Shimon Peres, Sarah Silverman and Israel's quest for solar energy

The quest for solar energy in Israel is intrinsically linked to Peres’ sense of carrying Ben Gurion’s torch.

Shimon Peres
David Ben Gurion, in 1969, met with an idealistic Young Judaea Year Course group on the lawn of Kibbutz Sde Boker, outside his modest hut, and urged them to build a new kibbutz in the desert. Thirty-eight years later his protégé, the newly minted President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres, arrived in the Arava on a picturesque sunny day at that Young Judaea kibbutz, Ketura, and urged that they fulfill Ben Gurion’s unrealized dream for the desert: to provide green energy for Israel and the world.
Ben Gurion, who was also instrumental in making sure the hot water solar heaters were on nearly every Israeli rooftop, observed as far back as 1955, the following: “The largest and most impressive source of energy in our world and the source of life for every plant and animal, yet a source so little used by mankind today is the sun...Solar energy will continue to flow toward us almost indefinitely.”
The quest for solar energy in Israel is intrinsically linked to Peres’ sense of carrying Ben Gurion’s torch and is captured here in three very different scenes, like in a movie, from the decade of struggle that the industry has had to endure. Each scene is captured in a picture and has its charms: the fascination with technology and its potential peace dividend, his love of female celebrity and bringing people together, and the sweet triumph of idealism over cynicism, especially in the desert.
Scene one: The Presidential motorcade pulls up to the curb outside of Keren Kolot, the Ketura guest house. It was 2007. Jucha, the mustached, tall senior aide to Peres and his unofficial prolific photographer, comes around and opens the reinforced black door.
About 60 people burst into peace songs to welcome the President, including about forty Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and American students studying at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, also based on Ketura.
It is classic Peres, at his very best. Deep voice, poetic words, inspiration as bright as the sun that day. Jucha, in setting up the visit, knew the idealism of the people of the Arava is what would give Peres energy, and Peres, on his tour of the experimental solar park at the Arava Institute, returned the favor to all around him. He implores us to fight the bureaucracy until we win the solar battle.
He offers his assistance. He invokes Ben Gurion’s vision. He says only from Ketura and the Arava could this revolution be launched.
He left us no choice.
Shimon Peres at Kibbutz Ketura (Yuval Ramos)Shimon Peres at Kibbutz Ketura (Yuval Ramos)
Ketura member Yuval Ramos snapped this picture of the President inspecting one of the first thin-film new panels to arrive in Israel that was being tested. To his left is Udi Gat, the long-time head of the Eilot municipality that birthed the solar industry, and note the student on the far right, Suleiman H., a Jordanian who became quietly instrumental in the founding of the solar industries in Israel and Jordan. Suleiman, now living on Ketura and studying for a doctorate in solar desalination, explains to the President that the thin film is better suited for the heat of the desert, and this author, wearing a Ben Gurion with a revolutionary beret t-shirt, explains the roll-out plan. Ramos gets the shot. We take on the State of Israel, with the blessing of its President.
What Peres didn’t say that memorable day is how difficult the journey was going to be. What didn’t help is the near collapse of the Western economies in 2008, the discovery of natural gas, the political in-fighting of the 24 various government offices that, to this day, are still an embarrassment to Start Up Nation. Or the determination and power of the bean counters in the Finance Ministry to kill the industry, which is still true today.
There were times when myself and my Arava Power co-founders, Ed Hofland of Kibbutz Ketura and David Rosenblatt of New Jersey, were so frustrated and incredulous that the machinations of state worked against the obvious benefits that solar energy would present. Energy independence thru clean power. Investment in the periphery. Green Zionism. Yet the bean counters ruled, intoxicated with the messianic allure of the gas. We soldiered on, some days better than others.
Scene two: It is hard to speak about Peres’s presidency without name dropping.
He was, quite frankly, a babe magnet. Rita. Madonna. Natalie Portman.
Naomi Campbell.
Supermodel Naomi Campgell with former president Shimon Peres at Int'l Women's Day event in Jaffa‏ (RAFI DELOYA)Supermodel Naomi Campgell with former president Shimon Peres at Int'l Women's Day event in Jaffa‏ (RAFI DELOYA)
I had the fun of seeing that first hand, when he invited Shakira and Sarah Silverman to headline his President’s conference in 2011.
“When I think the of the Jews and the Palestinians, the only real solution is the classic buddy movie formula,” said Silverman to a packed Binyanei Hauma. “You take two enemies and they are forced together to work on some common goal and in the end realize that they are not that different. How about solar power? How about powering the world with this beautiful sun they share? Or else a common enemy, like a monster from outer space.”
I was sitting with Shakira in the front row and Sarah zapped me on stage for allegedly flirting with the singer; I maintain that we were speaking about putting solar power on the orphanages she sponsors in Colombia. Really.
After the event, Sarah’s handlers asked if it would be OK to wait until Thursday for her meeting with Peres. I signaled to Sarah that we needed to speak to him now. Within 15 minutes, with a spring in his steps, he gushed in to greet Sarah like a giddy teenager.
“You’re dangerous,” beamed the President, as he embraced her.
“That’s why you have security, Mr. President,” Sarah cutely responded.
“I need a whole army with you.” He didn’t miss a beat and smiled broadly.
Sarah paused and then broke the President’s star-struck gaze.
“My brother in law would like to speak with you about solar power,” she said, dead-pan.
He wanted to continue the love affair, but I put my hand on his shoulder to shift his attention. Sarah’s manager, Amy Zvi, snapped the shot.
Sarah Silverman looks on at Shimon Peres ( Amy Zvi)Sarah Silverman looks on at Shimon Peres ( Amy Zvi)
While the President has no policy role in the government, let’s just say he knows people. We needed to make sure that the Finance Ministry’s solar proposal would not be added the next day to the official Cabinet agenda, which would then be meeting the following Sunday. The current proposal was a death blow to the young industry that he encouraged four years earlier that day at Ketura.
At the closing plenary of the President’s conference, Peres went on the attack: “Ben Gurion wouldn’t have asked what the price of solar is, he would have just built.”
The Finance Ministry backed off and we ended up having several more weeks to improve the proposal.
At her show in Tel Aviv, Sarah announced to the hipster crowd, “Yes, I f-cked Shimon Peres.” It was actually the Finance Ministry who got the treatment, but he would have appreciated the line if he was there.
Sub-plot: President Peres was very taken with a striking American blond, sporting a South African accent and fire for Rwandan orphans in her soul. Another Young Judaean, Anne Heyman, met her husband as a volunteer at the very same Kibbutz Ketura that developed the first solar field in the Middle East.
Anne, leveraging Israel’s long history of creating youth villages, brought that model to Rwanda and established perhaps the most hopeful place on the planet, the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. Through the Kibbutz Ketura connection, we were invited to build there sub-Sahara Africa’s first commercial scale solar field, based on the model of the solar field at Ketura, which was finally completed in 2011.
It is one thing to dream up a cool idea, but getting all the permissions and the buy-in of the Rwandan government is another.
Luckily, Shimon Peres was turning 90 and there was going to be a birthday celebration at his President’s Conference in 2013. President Kagame of Rwanda, along with former President Bill Clinton and others, were the special guests.
Kagame’s participation created for Anne and me the opportunity to host an event for the Rwandan President at the King David Hotel and to provide a progress report on our solar plans at the youth village.
The Jerusalem Post carried it on page one. A month later, the deal was signed.
“As a pioneer in its sector and region, the solar field to be established in the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village is an important stride in our mission for Tikkun Olam – making the world a better place,” later said the President. “This wonderful initiative will serve as a shining beacon of hope and progress for humanity, and as an example of what Israel can contribute to the developing world. In the hope that Israeli renewable energy expertise can continue to serve developing communities around the world, I wish the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village much success on behalf of the State of Israel.”
President Peres became the living bridge from Ben Gurion’s solar vision to Israel’s first solar field at Kibbutz Ketura and into Africa, with the first solar field of its kind in that region.
Anne died in a tragic horse-riding accident six months later.
President Peres’ condolence letter was read at her funeral in New York. The snow fell heavily outside. “Except for the rain on her wedding day and the snow storm today, her whole life was sunshine,” said one of the eulergizers.
Final scene: In 2014, I received a call from Eilot mayor Udi Gat’s office that President Peres is attending a night wedding at Timna Park and would like to see one of the solar fields in the Arava beforehand.
The sun was setting by the time the Presidential motorcade pulled up to the gate at the solar field at Kibbutz Elifaz. Clearly more frail and a bit smaller than the Peres who nearly 7 years earlier at nearby Ketura gave us the charge to create the solar industry, President Peres emerged from the black sedan, greeted the local dignitaries and workers, and stepped into a sunny spot next to a row of solar panels, with the Jordanian mountains behind him.
“Mr. President!,” I began. “In 2007 you came to Ketura to urge us to bring solar power to Israel. Here we are nearly seven years later and happy to report that mission is accomplished. By 2020, 100% of the day-time power from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea will be from the sun.”
Udi Gat, the head of the municipality (from the first photo), stood by the President and beamed, since he has been the local driving force. Peres was slated to step down and the Knesset was going to soon elect a new President, so I made my move.
“Mr. President, we need your help still in two ways,” I continued.
“First, the government needs to approve new solar quotas for more fields, and don’t you think that the next President should be a solar pioneer?”
Ballsy, right? I figured how many people can actually say they fought for and fulfilled the story-line from Ben Gurion’s solar vision to his protégé’s call to action to the actual gleaming facts-on-the-ground in Israel and in Africa? The President’s endorsement, there in the perfect end-of-day light in the Arava, at the twilight of his career, would be the perfect ending to this solar story.
Peres paused for a second and the ever-present Jucha yelled out from the gathered crowd, “Shimon, he’s serious.”
The President smiled, and I thought I nailed it.
“I’m not so sure an endorsement from me will be helpful” he laughed, holding my hand, with Jucha capturing the moment together for posterity.
After inspecting the solar field and posing for pictures, the President returned to the black armored car as I stood there and literally watched him ride off into the sunset.
The end.
Yosef I. Abramowitz serves as CEO of Energiya Global Capital and is one of the founders of the solar industries in Israel, East Africa, West Africa and elsewhere. In one of his last acts, the President nominated the author for the UN climate prize. He can be followed @KaptainSunshine.