A digital idealist’s path to peace in the Middle East

Posted on September 13, 2016

Few countries owe their survival to innovation. Israel is one. With little land and even less water, settlers were forced to experiment with new farming techniques to raise agricultural productivity. Surrounded by hostile neighbours, the military had no option but to gain a technological edge.

Out of that military-industrial incubator was born the country’s astonishing network of high-tech companies that has enabled the so-called Innovation Nation to thrive today.

One man who has lived through Israel’s entire modern history — and played no small part in shaping it — is Shimon Peres, the 93-year-old former prime minister and president.

You might expect a man of such an age to talk far more about what has gone before than what happens next. But in two conversations at the Ambrosetti forum, which brings together policymakers, business people and academics in Italy, Mr Peres has described a more intriguing vision of the future than I have heard from politicians half his age.

Long obsessed by the impact of science, he argues that new technologies are changing almost every aspect of our economies and uprooting many of the certainties by which we live. “Right now the world is going through a transitional period: one age is dying, but is not dead, and another one has been born, but is still in childhood,” he says.

He suggests that the big data revolution is rewriting many of the rules of our economies. “Information has always existed but is difficult to collect. It’s like eating soup with a fork. Big data gives you a spoon,” he says. He enthuses about how this information revolution is transforming areas such as medicine, transport and energy for the better.

But this change is also challenging the nature of power and political leadership, he says. A nation’s strength will increasingly depend on the creativity of its people and its companies rather than the force of its military. A leader’s authority will rely on the influence they wield rather than the levers they pull.

Mr Peres illustrates this paradox of power — in which giving away control can be more effective than trying to amass it — by contrasting his time as prime minister and as president.

As prime minister in the mid-1990s, he commanded the entire apparatus of government but fought constantly with political opponents and rivals and was ripped apart by the press. As president from 2007 to 2014, he had no administration and could issue no orders. But his very powerlessness enabled him to persuade people to do things. “The only thing I could do was to call on people to volunteer. And you’ll be surprised: I never heard the word no.”

He argues that politicians have to abandon the prejudices of the past and embrace this new era. Vision is therefore more important than experience. “People are trained to live in the past. But we need a society based on imagination, not memories,” he says.

That often means ignoring the advice of experts who tell you that something cannot be done. Quoting David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister with whom he worked closely, he says: “All the experts are experts on what was. There is no expert on what will be.”

That also means putting greater faith in the young, who understand the possibilities of the future better than their parents. In a region in which 108m people — or 28 per cent of the population — is aged between 15-29, that seems like a smart, and inevitable, choice.

To help realise that vision, Mr Peres has just launched the Israeli Innovation Center in Jaffa. It will showcase the country’s technological achievements and encourage collaboration and innovation across all its communities.

He believes that broader technological collaboration could also contribute to peace across the Middle East if the so-called Start-Up Nation can help nurture a Start-Up Region and promote economic growth and interdependence. To that end, his foundation is working quietly in Egypt, Jordan and Africa to encourage new enterprises. “The way to make peace is not through governments. It is through people,” he says.

There are certainly those in the Israeli tech community pushing the same message, as well as viewing the Middle East’s digital hinterland as a great business opportunity. But hostility in the region against Israel remains huge and the obstacles seem near-insurmountable.

Betting on technological innovation to spread peace in a region in which the past weighs so heavily on all sides, and in which suspicions run so deep, will strike many as an act of blind faith.

But Mr Peres is clinging to his vision. “I am totally optimistic,” he smiles. “If you have more dreams than achievements then you are still young.”

john.thornhill@ft.com

You must be logged in to post a comment Login