He gave me a tour, and made others available to speak about the initiatives. Almost instantly, I was struck by his grace, warmth and brilliance. That Intel— the world’s #1 chipmaker—is the key player (along with Cisco Systems-Israel) in these programs is monumental. The company is Israel’s largest private employer (9,855), as well as the country’s largest-single industrial exporter ($3.8 billion; a 10% market share). Intel has invested about $10 billion in Israel over the past few decades, and in April announced it would spend up to $6 billion for an upgrade of a chip-making facility in the country’s south.
But that conversation last August was a painful one for me. Many Palestinian entrepreneurs hated my cover because it crossed the border from development of their high-tech sector into politics—specifically the prospect that such Israeli-Palestinian partnerships could be the best hope for paving the road to peace. Yishai was comforting, and tried to explain why they were upset. “Please continue to cover our region,” he wrote. “As you stated, the rays of sun, even if painful, only do good.” I’ve done so, and only last month moderated a panel in Tel Aviv on Israeli-Palestinian ventures for Israel’s largest high-tech trade association. (I didn’t have a chance to see Yishai this time around, although he was initially going to be a panelist.)
Thursday’s talk, by phone, was beyond painful—it was unimaginable. I had just learned that his 16-year-old nephew Naftali—a duel Israeli-American citizen—was one of the three Israeli boys kidnapped a week before. The other youths are named Gilad Shaar, also 16, and Eyal Yifrah, age 19. None of them are soldiers, and they were all on their way home from school when they vanished. According to Israeli police, one of the boys had called a police hotline phone to whisper, “We’ve been kidnapped.”
To say that the abductions have captured and broken the hearts of the nation is to downplay what’s happening in this strip of land roughly the size of New Jersey. Israelis speak and think of little else. Their 24/7 news coverage is reminiscent of America during the 1970s Iran hostage crisis. “We are ALL now like one big family waiting for a loved one (3) to be well and safe,” writes a dear friend of mine, Ayelet Steinfeld, an education consultant for schools in Israel’s north—and a mother of three.
The largest manhunt perhaps in Israel’s history is underway. Israeli troops have poured into the West Bank, where house-to-house and cave-to-cave searches are happening. Some gun battles have erupted, rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza, and Israel has retaliated with airstrikes against Islamist training facilities. More than 330 Palestinians, most of them Hamas members, have been rounded up in the West Bank for interrogations. Some of those arrested had been released by Israel in 2011 as part of a 1,027-for-1 exchange deal to free a kidnapped IDF soldier named Gilad Shalit (sometimes spelled Schalit) from a five-year captivity by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
There’s no telling how volcanic the situation on the ground could become if the kids aren’t found by the start of Ramadan next Saturday—the timing of which the abductors may have considered as part of their plan.
The boys apparently disappeared at a hitchhiking junction in the West Bank on their way home from a religious school they attend in Gush Etzion, a cluster of 18 Israeli communities founded in 1940. [See map below.] Given its historical and geographical importance to Israel, it is widely accepted that in the event of a peace agreement, Israel would keep Gush Etzion—despite its location inside the “Green Line” (the 1949 armistice line between Israel and the West Bank). The land was purchased by settlers in the 1920s and 30s, but the towns destroyed by the Arab Legion before the outbreak of Israel’s 1948 war of independence. The communities were rebuilt after the 1967 Six Day War.
Gilad, one of the seized teenagers, lives in Talmon—a West Bank settlement (pop: 3,200) founded in 1989. The second teen, Eyal, lives in El’ad, a fast-growing city of 36,000 barely 16 miles from Tel Aviv. As for Naftali, he lives with his family and relatives in Nof Ayalon, a small religious town of about 5,000 people located some 25 miles from Tel Aviv (and 20 miles from Jerusalem). Naftali’s grandparents moved to Israel from Brooklyn in 1956. While he was born and raised in Israel, he’s visited close relatives in America, and he enjoys duel U.S.-Israel citizenship. He is said to be a bright student, who loves basketball and other sports, as well as a gifted musician who plays the flute and guitar. And it’s now nine days since his family has seen or heard from him.
Q: Last we spoke, Yishai, it was about such a positive topic—your work to realize your dream of the integration of Palestinians into high-tech, including joint ventures with Israeli firms. And now you’re in a nightmare.
A: These are trying times for us. While we have moments of despair, we are trying hard to keep our optimism. Naftali is the son of my brother and sister-in-law. Not only is he my nephew, but we also live in the same neighborhood. He’s almost like a son. I see him very often. It’s very hard, ok? This is now a week. There’s a lot of suspense, a lot of tension. I don’t know his whereabouts, and I’m just gravely worried. On the one hand, the family is very uptight. On the switch side, very optimistic.
Q: Are you able to sleep?
A: With the help of sleeping pills, yes, unfortunately. It’s very hard.
[Interview continues throughout this article)
Israel prime minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu says “it’s absolutely certain” that Hamas is behind the kidnappings, and makes it clear that his military’s mission— dubbed Operation Brother’s Keeper—has two goals: To bring back the boys, and to deal a thundering blow to Hamas. It was only 12 days ago that the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority and Gaza’s Hamas sealed a reconciliation government. Since then, Hamas' leaders have felt comfortable raising their heads and profiles in the Bank. The group’s charter—it’s designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., EU, Canada, Japan, Jordan and (recently) Egypt—is clear about its objective of destroying Israel, as well as killing all the world’s Jews. [For a view of a Hamas summer camp for boys, see this Reuters slideshow of photos taken only two days ago.]
President Barack Obama has called the unity deal an “unhelpful step” towards peace, but would nonetheless work with and fund the new Palestinian government. In response, a bipartisan group of 88 senators sent the White House a message that they would consider halting financial aid to the Palestinians. (Perhaps needless to say, by law the U.S. may not benefit Hamas, just as it cannot benefit Al-Qaeda.)
In the midst of Operation Brother’s Keeper, a State Department spokesperson urges both sides to “exercise restraint and avoid the types of situations that could destabilize the situation”—politicalspeak that means bupkis unless the words restraint and destabilization are defined.
“The abductors from Hamas came from an area under Palestinian Authority control and returned to PA-controlled territory,” Netanyahu said. “It’s important to understand the consequences of the unity with Hamas—it’s bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians, and bad for the area. “This incident reveals the character of the terror that we are fighting. Terrorists abduct innocent Israeli children while we give medical care in our hospitals to sick Palestinian children. That is the difference between our humane policy and the murderous terror that is attacking us.” (In fact, the wife of PA president Mahmoud Abbas underwent surgery last weekend in a Tel Aviv hospital, while the mother-in-law of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was allowed into the country two weeks ago for cancer treatment.)
Netanyahu’s disgust is shared by Israel’s Consul General in New York. “Morally inexcusable and unacceptable,” Ambassador Ido Aharoni told me yesterday. “The boys were on their way home from school. Targeting teenagers is a clear indication of Hamas’ inhumanity. It is our obligation as human beings not to look the other way and keep silent, when evil transpires before our very eyes. Right now, all of our efforts are focused on the swift rescue of our boys, and their return home.”
While U.S. lawmakers from across the aisle have condemned the kidnappings, Obama has thus far remained silent. “The leaders of the world must make their voices heard loud and clear,” Israel president Shimon Peres told the parents of the abducted kids at a meeting in his home on Thursday. He promised to raise the subject with Obama during a visit next week to Washington. “I intend to echo the cries of our country against terrorism both in private and in public. This is my personal mission… there is no room for forgiveness or mercy.”
Hamas hasn’t claimed responsibility. Nor has it hasn’t issued a denial, and its leaders appear to be applauding the abductions. “We call upon our people in all parts of the West Bank to confront the occupation, whether as part of mass confrontations or privately-initiated resistance [read: operations],” wrote Hamas spokesman Hussam Badran on his Facebook page, according to MEMRI, a Middle East press-monitoring organization headquartered in Washington. “This is an opportunity to widen the circle of confrontation, and restore the West Bank to its natural status as the spearhead of the resistance.”
A second Hamas spokesman warns that if Israel expels West Bank Hamas leaders to Gaza, it would be “opening the gates of hell.”
Meanwhile, Naftali’s parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles in Israel and New York (Brooklyn and upstate) exist inside their own hell — waiting for word about the schoolboy’s fate. As does Intel, and Yishai’s Palestinian friends and colleagues. A group of American diplomats visited the Fraenkel family, as did Netanyahu yesterday. Neighbors have been told not to talk to the press, as the hunt continues.
Q: Yishai, what can you tell Forbes about the status of the investigation?
A: We do know some things that go beyond what is public. I cannot disclose it of course. I will say that based upon the data that I see, I have strong feelings that these kids are alive. We have not seen concrete signs of life, but all the data that we do have leads us to believe that these three boys are alive. The Israeli security forces are investing tremendous efforts here. They’re doing all they can. Our prime minister, Netanyahu, our president, Peres, it’s their top agenda right now—to get these three abducted teens. Next to our houses there’s a small contingent of people keeping us updated.
Q: Israel believes Hamas operatives conducted the kidnappings. Is that the case?
A. This is what our government claims, and I trust they have their sources. And [U.S.] Secretary of State John Kerry said there are many indications that point to Hamas involvement. But I don’t know who did it or why they did it. I simply do not know.
Q: Is this especially painful for you because of all the work you do for and with Palestinians at Intel?
A: No, no, the answer is no. I’m a realist. I’ve lived in this place all my life and there are many forces trying to shape our region—positive and negative or destructive forces. And there’s no doubt that people who kidnap young kids are destructive and they hurt the Palestinian cause as equally as it’s hurting the Israeli cause. It doesn’t help anyone. Negative, negative, negative—any way you look at it. So, am I surprised? No, I’m saddened. But that’s reality. Does that mean I feel bad things about the good people I work with, among the Palestinians? No. These are good people. It’s no secret that every society has bad people. Do we not have Israeli or Jewish murders and rapists? Are they not equally bad?
Indeed, the Palestinians who Yishai works with in high-tech – I had the unforgettable pleasure of meeting some of them — are among the cream of the leaders that their people need in any future state. It’s a shame they are not also in politics, where they are also desperately needed, but entirely understandable that they shun it.
A year ago, Intel established what it calls the Joint Technology Forum. [See photo above of Yishai holding a JTF chart.] Its first ‘meet-up’ brought 30 Palestinian and 30 Israeli entrepreneurs—an equal number intentionally—to Intel’s Jerusalem HQ from 20 companies. Among them: NDS (a large Israeli video-software firm), Asal Technologies and Exalt Technologies (two of the largest and best Palestinian high-tech companies); the Israel branches of Microsoft, Cisco, IBM and other multinationals. Purpose: “To talk, to just bond,” said Yishai. “We decided, let’s take the gospel and spread it out.” Intel’s offices in Israel display hope for what a Middle East future could look like. At “coffee corners” on some floors, Israeli and Palestinian men look interchangeable, and they mix amicably with Christians and Druse, burka-clad Arab women and wig-donning ultra-orthodox Jewish women.
Last summer, Yishai asked Ghassan Al-Jamal, an official at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv who leads the USAID technology efforts for Palestinians, where he thought that Intel-Israel ranks among Israeli companies outsourcing work to Ramallah (the business capital of the West Bank.) “With regards to your question, you rank as number ONE,” Al-Jamal wrote back.
Intel’s work with Palestinians is not about charity. “It makes economic sense,” Yishai told me during that visit. “Because they’re innovative, because they’re good. Intel does corporate responsibility, but we’re not in the philanthropy business. Intel is in to make money. One [West Bank] company we’re working with could possibly one day become an Intel branch.” He elaborated on these points: “Israeli engineers are not very cheap. Almost every project we do nowadays, we try to find strategies of lowering costs, of outsourcing some parts of these programs in lower-cost geographies. It starts with outsourcing to Palestinian companies, and then flourishing into a much deeper cooperation—of developing together, of them becoming part of the Intel ecosystem of development.”
One of Yishai’s deputies, an Israeli named Joey Edelstein, had told me that “by far” his outsourcing ventures with Palestinian firms were unrivaled: “I have done outsourcing to India, I’ve seen China. This works for us and is the best experience that I’ve seen.”
However, there’s a downside: “It goes pretty slow for a number of reasons,” Yishai had conceded. “I think we have some suspicions to overcome. The tech sector in Palestine is still fairly small, taking time for things to come up. I think the Israeli companies are not as aware. There are concerns about, ‘What happens if tomorrow morning a third intifada, a third uprising, starts? How will relationships be?’ So there are concerns, some of which are legitimate.”
Q: Will you continue your work with Palestinians, regardless of what has happened to your nephew? Or will the initiative be affected in any way?
A: Of course I’ll continue, because I think this is the right thing. Number one, I’m a business person, I’m a technologist. It makes business sense. It makes technology sense. And beyond that I think it makes national sense, for Palestinians, for Israelis. Every way I look at, it’s the right thing. And as you and I know very well, it’s not simple; it’s complicated, it’s touchy, it’s sensitive. But it’s the right thing to do.
Q: Yeah, I learned the hard way about the sensitivities. I learned that I should try harder to separate the growth of the Palestinian high-tech sector from the prospect that such collaborations could help lead to normalization and peace. The sector needs to grow in its own right.
A: You meant well, but through all these landmines you never know when you’re gonna step on one in this region. I have no doubt that the [Forbes] piece bode well, meant well. Yes, some people may have been offended, but I think they were worried. They were worried how will this portray them, what will society think about them, “what does it imply, what does it say? Just do it in hush-hush or just do it?” It’s just the way it is.
Q: Has Intel been supportive through this family crisis?
A: Intel has been extremely supportive. The level of support has been outstanding. I’ve gotten calls from people throughout the company, across the globe. I’ve also received in the past couple of days numerous emails and phone calls from Palestinian friends and counterparts of mine who work with Intel, of course all private, but condemning this and telling me in their daily prayers they think about these three kids. It was really touching. They meant it, they really meant it from their hearts.
Q: But the messages are private. They’re not willing to step forward publicly and condemn it. Is that part of the problem here?
A: Maybe. Every society has its dynamics, and I can’t say I understand the Palestinian dynamic. I can anticipate it. I don’t hold a grudge against them. They have their issues and the way it works. In my eyes, when President Abbas said what he did on Wednesday, it meant a lot. [See excerpts below of the speech.] We’ve heard him in the past. This time he stood on a stage in Saudi Arabia. He’s the leader, the representative and spokesperson of the Palestinian people, and for me this was a very vocal, strong public statement. When he spoke, he was the mouth for my Palestinian friends, that was my feeling. He spoke for them. Hearing it from him was as if I was hearing it from my Palestinian friends.
EXCERPTS FROM SPEECH BY ABBAS IN SAUDI ARABIA: “We are [working] in coordination with [Israeli security forces] in order to find these boys because they are, first and foremost, human beings, and we want to protect human lives. Even the Americans have told us that one of them is an American [Naftali Fraenkel], and we answered that, whether American or Israeli, for us he is a human being and we must look for this human being and return him to his family…The truth is that whoever committed this act wants to destroy us. Therefore, we will talk to them differently and hold a different position, whoever it was that committed this action. Because we cannot endure such actions; we cannot confront the State of Israel—neither militarily nor in any other way.”
Yishai’s acceptance of the reluctance of Palestinians to voice their outrage is admirable, especially given what can happen to those who do. While some Palestinian entrepreneurs featured in my Forbes story liked the article, others were angered or frightened that they could be personally or financially targeted.
Take the recent case of professor Mohammed Dajani, the director of the American Studies department at Al Quds University, a Palestinian college that enjoys a sister-institution status with Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where half the undergraduate students are Jewish. In March, he took his students on a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. (He did this, he says, because the Holocaust is not taught in Palestinian schools, and that there is “a lot of denial” in his community that it even happened.) Eleven days ago, he resigned from his post following a lengthy campaign of death threats, campus riots and intimidation and harassment against him.
Arab citizens of Israel can also be vulnerable if they don’t toe the line. Three days ago, a 16-year-old Arab Israeli named Mohammad Zoabi posted a three-minute YouTube video expressing support for the kidnapped youngsters, as well as condemning the Palestinian Authority as a “terrorist organization.” While his mother praised him for having “the courage to speak” that she says she never had, Israeli police arrested three of his relatives—his father, a grandmother and an aunt— who were suspected of plotting to take him across the border to the West Bank to harm him.
“To those terrorists who have kidnapped our kids, bring them back,” Zoabi said in the video, in English, Arabic and Hebrew—an Israeli flag positioned behind him. “And you better bring them back now…To Bibi, our prime minister, and his government, wake up and stop cooperating with terrorists. The Palestinian Authority is the biggest terrorist… Our enemies don’t separate between Arabs and Jews living in Israel. For them, we are all one. For them, we are all Israelis. And you know what? I am proud about that. I’m an Israeli… Israel is here to exist, as a Jewish and as a democratic country.” Watch his inspiring video. But the BDS professors in America who are behind an academic boycott of Israel—they call it a “colonial, apartheid, racist” state—might not want to go near it.
One more example: The talented Arab Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, born in the West Bank city of Tulkarem. He has strongly condemned those who falsely smear Israel as an apartheid country, and has received threats in return. He says that those who threaten him do not dispute his reporting but simply want him to gag himself on the subject.
As for Abbas’s speech in Saudi Arabia, he deserves applause for it. But he was initially silent after the kidnappings became known. It was only after a phone conversation with Netanyahu three days later, their first direct talk in over a year, when Abbas became a mensch and stepped to the plate. Moreover, the leader of the PA too often talks out of both sides of his mouth—saying in Arabic to Palestinians and the Arab media what they want to hear, while saying the politically-correct things in English to foreign officials and Western media. As Richard Chesnoff, a former executive editor of Newsweek, and a prize-winning veteran reporter, wrote in 2012: “If there were an Oscar given for doublespeak, the Palestinian political leadership would win it, hands down.”
Just since the 2010 start of the peace talks (and continuing today), a venomous stream of hate messages gets disseminated by the PA through its media, social and education systems. It’s a steady drumbeat of libels, including repeated assertions that Israel intentionally spreads AIDS, prostitution and drugs among Palestinians, and even pollutes Palestinian waters. Similar recurring themes can be found in everything from the sports pages, textbooks and children’s shows and plays, to music videos, cartoons, puppet shows, even crossword puzzles, game show quizzes and school exam questions. While campaigning for the nomination to be the Democratic presidential candidate in 2007, Hillary Clinton gave a press conference in the U.S. Senate building where she insisted, “We must stop the propaganda.” She called it a “clear example of child abuse” that “profoundly poisons the minds of these children.”
I’ve written previously in Forbes about the literally dozens of summer camps, town squares, schools, stadiums and sports teams in the West Bank named after terrorists whose only claim to fame are having tallied up the most civilian casualties. In 2010, a town in the West Bank honored Saddam Hussein with a town square memorial. Salah Khalaf, who planned the murder of two American diplomats, on top of the killing of 11 Israeli athletes in the 1972 Olympics, has a sports stadium in his name; it was even built with U.S. funding. The PA maintains the practice of defining all of Israel as “Palestine” on maps and websites. In 2012, Abbas and six other senior PA leaders were in the audience at a packed concert when a singer from his party praised him by name—within a song that presented all of Israel as Palestinian land.
In 2011, on official PA TV, Abbas himself praised the snatching of Israeli soldier Shalit, then age 19: “Hamas kidnapped a soldier, or captured a soldier, and managed to keep him for five years—that’s a good thing, we don’t deny it.”
Q: I agree with you that Abbas’s speech [in Saudi Arabia] was forceful, and he said it in front of Arab ministers, giving it even more force. But I think he’s often late in saying what needs to be said after such incidents—and only after he’s pressured to do so by Israel or other countries.
A: I’ll be honest, I don’t know. I’m a technology person, not a geopolitical analyst. My sense is, and also from what I hear is, that the Palestinian security apparatus is supporting this [effort to locate the boys]. The Israelis and Palestinians—we have our issues, our differences, we have our fights, let’s face it. But even when you have disagreements and even when there’s conflict, conflict has laws, conflict has rules. We have 120 years of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, give or take. Two and a half years of conflict in Syria yielded 10x the amount of casualties. It’s a very tragic conflict for both sides, I’m not trying to downplay it. But there is, I would almost say, a level of decency sometimes. There are two sides, and each one is going to have their painful points they want to make. But you don’t kidnap teens. You don’t take kids who want to come back home from school. You don’t do it…. It’s unfortunate that the Kerry talks so far did not succeed, but there is this de facto status quo that includes cooperation. Good things are happening. And suddenly comes this thing, and it’s a major disruption. I read the Palestinian press sometimes, I know some Arabic, and many Palestinians are enraged by the abductions. Many of them are really angry about this thing. It hurts, it set so many things backwards.
Q: But some of the Palestinian press is supportive of the kidnappings.
A: With Hamas in Gaza, there are some voices there that are supportive. But as opposed to other cases in the past, I think the level of support, even among the most radical, is very low. People really think there’s a red line: You don’t touch kids. Try to understand the subtext of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You don’t touch kids. Unfortunately, people die, people get hurt, there are bombs. But there are things you don’t do. You don’t touch kids. You look at the subtext of Abbas—he speak in Arabic of the shuhada [suicide bombers], the youngsters, that there’s this cultural code, and [Abbas says] you don’t touch kids—leave them out of it.
As recently as four months ago, one of Abbas’ senior officials, Jibral Rajoub, said that “if Hamas wants to kidnap soldiers, let them…We encourage them.” Two days ago, Rajoub—himself released in a prisoner swap—stated that “apparently Israel understands only the language of abductions.” So while Abbas appears to draw a distinction between the seizure of teenage soldiers and non-soldiers, Rajoub evidently does not. One thing that is crystal clear: Abbas’ deputy is playing with fire with such a remark during a week when Israelis all across the country are anxious and furious. The official Palestinian daily takes the goading even further, suggesting that Israel may be behind the kidnappings.
Disturbingly and grotesquely, Hamas affiliates have launched what they call “The Three Shalits” campaign in social media—a reference to the name of the Israeli soldier who was held for five years by Hamas. They are mocking the abductees by likening them to Shalit. Their Facebook pages features dozens of photos of smiling people, including kids, holding up the three-fingered symbol. In another case, a cartoon shows three rats with the Jewish Star of David dangling from a fishing rod, accompanied by a caption in Arabic that reads: “A Master Stroke.” Middle East commentator Tom Gross has compiled a collection.
Also on social media, Israeli anger has boiled over. A Facebook page that calls for the murder of a Palestinian terrorist every hour until the three boys are released has more than 20,000 “likes.”
Q: The boys are believed to have been at a hitchhiking junction in the West Bank when they went missing. There’s been some criticism that they may have been hitching, and that perhaps they shouldn’t have been doing it in a potentially-dangerous area. Is that a valid criticism?
A: I’m not sure that we know the full facts. Were they actually hitchhiking, or did someone stop and take them? It’s part of the investigation and until the full details are uncovered, I’m not sure it would be a wise thing to discuss. It’s one of the open questions of the investigation. But some people do not understand exactly the picture, or, as in other cases, they have this inclination to blame the victim: “Why were they there? What were they doing there?” It overshadows, you know, that this is a terrible crime. These are three young teens wanting to come back home from school, abducted. And it hurts the Palestinian people no less than the Israelis.
Q: You’re a religious man, Yishai. How has that been over the past week, in terms of how it plays into your thoughts?
A: It’s a hard question. Being a religious man, you have faith and you have trust and you believe in the power of prayer, and it helps in these moments. I really believe in the power of prayer to transcend and to uplift and to really help speed up the resolution. Now, as a religious man, how do I treat evil? Hey, here’s a very bad thing, why did it happen to really innocent kids? It’s a question. Not different from how come a million and a half kids were murdered during the Holocaust? Once I transformed from child to adult was the day I understood that some questions do not have answers, or may take a lifetime to find the answers. How can evil things happen to good people? I don’t have answers. I know it happened. Does this mean I believe less in God? No, but these are good questions. I do not have the answers.
Richard Behar is the Contributing Editor, Investigations, for Forbes magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org