Sherwin Pomerantz

Creative Incarceration Can Aid the Palestinian Economy

Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with a member of the Palestinian high tech community. The gentleman is the CEO of a software company and very much concerned about developing the Palestinian high tech community further than where it stands today.

One of the tidbits he shared with me was that there are barely 500 professional software developers in Palestine today.  His feeling is that in order to develop critical mass and really have an impact on the local economy that number has to rise to the vicinity of 2,500 or more competent professional software developers.

To be sure a number of small firms there are doing work outsourced to them by some Israeli companies.  But the potential for growth is significant if only there were a concrete plan to develop it.  My contact admitted that, at the present time, no such plan existed.

And then I thought about Jacob “Kobi” Alexander, who founded and led Comverse Technology, once one of Israel’s biggest high-tech companies, who was recently sentenced, in New York, to 30 months in prison for securities fraud.  The sentencing came more than 16 years after the offenses were committed, because in 2006 Alexander fled to Namibia to avoid prosecution. He only agreed recently to return to the United States to face charges.

Until he fled to Namibia 11 years ago, Alexander had been among the leaders of Israeli high-tech. He founded Comverse, originally known as Efrat Future Technologies, together with Boaz Misholi and Yechiam Yemini in 1982, and four years later they took it public on Wall Street. A pioneer in developing voicemail technology, the company reached a stock market valuation of $22 billion and became the first Israeli company to win a place in the S&P 500 index.

Alexander was just 35 in 1987 when he became the company’s chairman and CEO.

U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis of Brooklyn, who determined the sentence, chided Alexander but added “I really don’t understand how someone as brilliant and accomplished and focused and respected as you could be so incredibly, abjectly foolish to make some of the decisions you made.”

But the key words here are brilliant, accomplished, focused, respected….all traits that the Palestinian software community could use to build that sector.

But for the next 30 months Alexander will be languishing in a Federal prison in the United States.  Yet, he does have the knowledge that the Palestinian software community needs to build itself up.

So wouldn’t it be an amazing allocation of capability, if someone could convince the new administration in Washington, to permit Alexander to come back to Israel and serve his sentence here, under controlled conditions, charged with a specific task.  That task would be to use his intelligence and experience to assist the Palestinian software community to grow to the size I discussed last week with the CEO mentioned above.

I doubt if this has ever been done previously.  But creative incarceration can yield big benefits.  Alexander is not a threat to anyone and using his talents as a possible contribution to bettering the Palestinian economy would be one way to encourage peace in this small sliver of land shared by two peoples.

I have no idea how to make this happen although there is a tradition in America to permit foreign nationals to serve out their sentences in their home countries, albeit with restrictions.  But perhaps someone reading this will take it and make this suggestion to an individual in the Trump administration who has the vision to make this a reality.  At the end of the day everyone involved would benefit.

Former Israeli President Shimon Peres of blessed memory once said “In Israel, a land lacking in natural resources, we learned to appreciate our greatest national advantage: our minds. Through creativity and innovation, we transformed barren deserts into flourishing fields and pioneered new frontiers in science and technology.”  That process continues and this particular opportunity may well be ours for the asking.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 32 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, regional entities and Invest Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Former Chairperson of the Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a Board Member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.