Peace, innovation and the synergy between them

The Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Jaffa (courtesy)
The Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Jaffa (courtesy)

Twenty-five years ago, the Peres Center for Peace was established and since then it has completed amazing work, which is unfortunately not known to the public.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight the Center’s accomplishments, and to answer the questions of many of my friends in the field of peace activism as to why the Peres Center doesn’t promote political views or policy recommendations to end the conflict. The answer is that while Shimon Peres dedicated his career to promoting a political solution to the conflict the Peres Center was established to complement the political approach not to replace it as I will explain below.

Many think that we turned our focus to innovation because peace was too hard and too controversial. The truth is very different, we never stopped promoting peace and the addition of innovation to the mission of the Center was not meant to replace the efforts to promote peace but rather to enhance them.

In 1996, Peres founded the Peres Center for Peace as a non-for-profit NGO in order to advance his vision for a peaceful and prosperous future for Israel and across the Middle East. Finding himself in the unfamiliar position of being out of elected office, Peres sought to answer the question of how he could promote peace with other means.

Thinking innovatively as usual, and as a lesson learned from his work on the Oslo Accords in 1993 and from the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Peres came to realize that peace could not be achieved solely from the top down and that political efforts must be complemented with a bottom-up approach that promotes person-to-person connections to build passionate constituencies for the political peace.

Seeking to promote peace in an apolitical manner, the Peres Center began connecting Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, on the ground, building relationships between would-be strangers based on common interests and shared challenges. Through a variety of immersive programs aimed at breaking down the existing barriers to peace, the Peres Center developed unique methodologies that today remain a world-class example of impact-focused peace and capacity building.

During its 25 years of existence, the Peres Center conducted projects in the fields of medicine, education, business and the environment. The Peres Center brought more than 13,000 Palestinian children for lifesaving treatment in Israeli hospitals; trained hundreds of Palestinian physicians in Israeli hospitals, where they specialized in medical fields that they could not learn in Gaza or the West Bank; enabled thousands of youth, Israelis and Palestinian, Arab and Jews to connect through ‘Education for peace’ programs developed and managed by the Peres Center using sports, art and innovation; constructed a network of young people from across the Middle East and North Africa to study journalism and innovation together; led projects to identify obstacles for the Palestinian economy and how to overcome them by business relations between Palestinians and Israelis; and is now helping to develop the innovation ecosystem in Palestine and to connect the geographic and demographic periphery in Israel with the high-tech sector.

Shimon Peres is indeed well-known all over the world primarily as a result of his Nobel prize-winning work in the pursuit of peace, but his legacy is not complete without recognizing his role as one of the founding fathers of the Start-Up Nation. During his prolific career in government, he promoted Israel’s transition from an agricultural and centralized economy to a technological and economic powerhouse. Throughout his career, he pushed Israel to be at the forefront of science and technology. In developing Israel’s defense infrastructure, in saving Israel from hyperinflation, and in peacemaking, Peres’s mind was constantly innovation-oriented. Throughout his career, he pushed Israel to be at the forefront of science and technology. He always said that though our nation was too small to offer a significant market or industry to the global economy, we could export our ideas to the world.

After seven years as president and 70 years serving the Israeli people in government, Peres took office at the Peres Center for Peace for the first time in 2014. That year, the Center expanded into “The Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.” Innovation was always a clear part of Peres’s vision for peace and he strongly believed in the synergy between peace and innovation. He believed that peace is made possible not only through innovative diplomacy, but that innovation in science and technology could help subdue the underlying motivations for conflict itself.

With approximately 60% of the Middle East’s population aged under 30, Peres believed that a vastly more innovative landscape in the region would ensure a prosperous future for all. If we can help our neighbors create an ecosystem of innovation similar to what we have in Israel, they will be less attracted by the influence of extremists and jihadists, and instead harness the energy of future generations and channel it toward positive and constructive causes. Peres strongly believed that both morally and strategically, it is not good for Israel to be an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty.

By expanding the mission of the center, Peres was able to realize his vision of an educational hub for innovation. The Innovation Center also filled a gap felt during Peres’s presidency. When hosting world leaders, Peres had many places to exhibit Israel’s past, but nowhere to showcase the modern, future-oriented Israel.

The Peres Center had an amazing facility in Jaffa which was underutilized then due to the bulk of programming being implemented in hospitals, schools, businesses, and on sports fields across the country and not in the building. There was an opportunity to transform its headquarters on the shores of Jaffa into the Israeli Innovation Center, which today stands as a unique “one-stop shop,” showcasing the role of Israeli innovation in making the world a better place and in shaping a peaceful future.

Peres strongly believed that the world is transitioning away from an understanding of growth based on expanding physical territory to a new reality based on the expansion of the human mind, science, technology, and innovation. He believed that the new world could be more peaceful if it abandoned the zero-sum rationale of old paradigms in which countries needed to conquer new territory and exploit natural resources from others in order to grow themselves. In this new “win-win” world of science, one does not become great at the expense of others; everyone can grow simultaneously. Peres was adamant that Israel has all the tools to lead this paradigm shift and succeed in this new world.

Israel is indeed considered the “Start-Up Nation” because it has more start-ups per capita than any other country in the world, more companies registered on NASDAQ outside the US, and more patents registered per capita, among many more amazing achievements. The three driving forces behind Israel’s creative and innovative spirit are necessity, diversity and audacity – or as we call it, chutzpah.

The necessity to innovate can be traced back to our arrival in our ancient homeland. We made our way out of Egypt only to find that what was written in the Bible was not exactly true – Israel wasn’t the “Land of Milk and Honey,” but more a land of swamps in the north and deserts in the south. If Moses had a GPS, he would probably have taken the Jewish people anywhere else, rather than bringing us to the only place in the Middle East without natural resources. While most of our neighbors are “oily” countries, we got stuck with being a “holy” country, which is not helpful economically. In the end, however, it was a blessing in disguise, because without natural resources we were forced to be creative and focus on our human capital.

Israel is a country of a multitude of people of diverse backgrounds who must be entrepreneurial by nature. In order to address the many needs and challenges facing them, they must have been able to start from scratch and develop a can-do attitude against all odds. Because of our diversity, we have a remarkable fusion of people speaking different languages and offering new perspectives, which enriches and contributes to our creative energy.

The final piece of the puzzle is Israelis’ audacity – our rebellious spirit and our undisciplined character. Israelis don’t respect authority and don’t like to play by the rules. We don’t pay too much attention to titles and rank and we challenge absolutely everything. All these characteristics may make us quite obnoxious some of the time, but very innovative most of the time. More than 360 multinational technology companies have established their R&D centers in Israel because they know that Israelis will challenge even the most basic assumptions of the company, which is exactly what you need in order to disrupt and innovate.

In its inaugural year, the Israeli Innovation Center drew 100,000 visitors – from Israelis and tourists of all ages, genders and backgrounds, to heads of state and esteemed business delegations – inviting them to explore the past, present and future of Israeli innovation through an immersive state-of-the-art experience. Serving as a national and international hub for knowledge and innovation, we promote innovation-collaboration agreements with international partners and serve as a bridge between the global community and the Israeli ecosystem, offering a direct channel to Israel’s leading experts and most innovative startups, and to opportunities for business development and mutual learning. A big emphasis is put on the values of diversity and inclusion, as well as an effort to promote entrepreneurship and innovation in younger generations through the development of educational tools for students, providing them with the skills they need to become agents of positive change in their communities.

Peres believed that the correct formula for a more peaceful world is the combination of the values of peace and tikkun olam, alongside science and technological advancements. These are two sides of the same coin because technology without values can be very dangerous and values without technology don’t lead to progress.

Israel needs urgently to come up with a political initiative to end the conflict. The damaging predicament in which we are stuck is not morally or strategically sustainable. However, the political initiative is not the mission of the Peres Center and that is why I am involved with other organizations that focus on political policies. Each organization should bring its comparative advantage and added value, and the Peres Center is doing exactly that.

You are invited to visit the Center and witness firsthand how we are utilizing the Israeli innovative spirit to promote peace and the values of “Tikkun Olam.” We invite all our visitors to partner with us in our peacemaking projects. When you visit, I promise that you will find an inspiring experience and an energizing call for action.

About the Author
Nadav Tamir is the executive director of J Street Israel, a member of the board of the Mitvim think-tank, adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and member of the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative. He was an adviser of President Shimon Peres and served in the Israel embassy in Washington and as consul general to New England.
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