This article was written by Morey Altman, Writer and Public Relations Consultant.
It’s befitting that one of Shimon Peres’ last acts was the inauguration, in July, of the Israeli Innovation Center, located at the Peres Centre for Peace in Jaffa. At the time, Israeli’s 9th President and former Prime Minister shared his thoughts on the state and its technological developments:
“All my life 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 today, when I look at Israel, we all can see clearly that the greater the dream, the more spectacular the results.”
As plaudits from Israel’s tech community have streamed out on social media channels since his death, there’s no question how Peres is being remembered. He was the dreamer with a sparkle in his eye.
“There was something almost childlike in his ability to see the vision of things,” says Dr. Liraz Lasry, Strategic Advisor at Tel Aviv-based Singulariteam VC, and a personal advisor to many of Israel’s most successful start-ups. “He definitely had an entrepreneurial spirit, and more than that, he represented the Israeli entrepreneur: a combination of a lot of courage, chutzpah, vision, optimism, openness, and creativity. He was a manifestation of what makes the Israeli entrepreneurs so special. He was one of them.”
Peres’s relationship with technology goes back to the inception of the state. During the 1948 War of Independence, he was responsible for personnel and arms purchases for the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization in the Mandate years which evolved into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Peres was tough-minded and realistic enough to balance a special blend of optimism and pessimism.
Following the war, military research and development remained a constant imperative, and Peres was always there. He was instrumental in the creation of Israel’s aircraft industry, for instance, working alongside U.S. volunteer Al Schwimmer, and at just 29, was made director of Israel’s Defense Ministry. He is also credited with developing Israel’s nuclear program, which has been alleged to include the capacity to build nuclear weapons.
This is the Peres many older Israelis remember. “I had the pleasure of first meeting Peres in Jordan 21 years ago,” says Bob Rosenschein, an American-Israeli internet entrepreneur best known as the founder and CEO of Answers.com. “People think he was an idealist, but he’d first spent many decades in the defense establishment and later as a hawkish Minister of Defense. He was tough-minded and realistic enough to balance a special blend of optimism and pessimism.”
Depth of Experience
Nevertheless, his experience in the defense ministry gave him insight into introducing dual-use technologies from the military to the marketplace. He recognized that it was often through the technologists themselves, as they migrated from the public to private sector. His support stimulated the emergence of a dozen incubators to promote research and the formation of many companies.
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In the next chapter of his political career, the hawk would transform into ‘Saba Start-up’. Not surprisingly, Peres was an early supporter of advanced research and education in nanotechnology, an area which is now bearing fruit for a number of significant Israeli companies. “The establishment of the nanoscience and nanotechnology centers which he had pushed for, has allowed for a new wave of innovation, with scientists coming out of the top universities, pushing forward the nanotechnology industry in Israel,” says Dr. Doron Myersdorf, CEO and co-founder of StoreDot, which was named Globes Israel most promising startup in 2015.
As Israel’s tech ambassador – a role he relished – Peres had an impact on people wherever he went. Former head of the space directorate and General Manager of the Israel Aerospace Institute’s Space Division, Arie Halsband, traveled with him in an official Presidential delegation to Asia and says he “was impressed from his energy and his personality.”
MIT Technology Review’s Editor in Chief and Publisher Jason Pontin thinks that moving forward without Peres will be a bigger transition for Israelis than they’ve internalized yet. Pontin suggests that as a founding father, Shimon Peres was much more than just a dreamer; he represented Zionism’s promise to create an economically viable state for the Jewish people and played a major role in making that a reality.
“To most Americans he was a hawk who became a dove for peace with Oslo, but in Silicon Valley, he had long been building bridges into our world. He was interested in the tech itself; but he was also realistic about what Israel could learn from Silicon Valley,” says Pontin.
Capitalism with Israeli Characteristics
“In many ways, he adopted the Silicon Valley method, which relied more on government support and subsidies than people here like to admit. He knew to look at military cooperation; and to protect intellectual property. He saw that it was important to encourage a local venture capital scene, with all sorts of tax and labor goodies. And then stay out of the way. Peres called it capitalism with Israeli characteristics.”
If one word summed him up, it was the word ‘Tomorrow’.
“He had a schtick that the path to peace in the Middle East was through technology development, and that wealth generation might have its own political imperative. The was a message Silicon Valley liked to hear.”
Of course, many in Israel’s financial and technology sectors liked to hear that, too.
Hillel Fuld is a well-known Israeli strategic advisor and tech blogger, and a startup founder himself. “Peres, while a controversial political personality, was a unifying factor in Israeli society,” he says. “Much like tech, Peres bridged gaps in Israeli society as well as between us and our neighbors. When it came to tech, I sat and heard him talk about the future just a few months ago.”
“If one word summed him up, it was the word ‘Tomorrow’. Tomorrow in tech, tomorrow for peace, and tomorrow for humanity. An optimist and a strong and well respected leader.”