Friday, August 30, 2013

Why So Many Palestinian High-Tech Entrepreneurs Hate My FORBES Cover Story

“The negative reactions to an article that tries to suggest an optimistic perspective on Israeli-Palestinian relationships are disappointing. They are a reflection of the strengthening culture of avoidance and extremism promoted heavily by some Palestinian leaders who have given up hope for peace. All this said, readers of FORBES could realize on their own that something is happening between people on both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, which is more powerful than any political cynicism or unnecessary pressures. Eventually, the people, and not their political leaders, will decide whether they want to live in peace or to live in conflict forever.”
–Izhar Shay, head of Israel operations for Canaan Partners, a multi-billion dollar global venture capital firm

There’s a popular word in modern Hebrew (on loan from Israel’s Russian immigrants) called balagan, which means ‘mess’ or ‘chaos.’ To give the word some context, last November, when an Israeli army patrol jeep was struck by an anti-tank missile fired from Gaza, the vehicle’s 21-year-old commander phoned his parents (who had seen something about a jeep attack on the news) to try and reassure them. “We had a big balagan,” he told his dad. “I’m slightly injured, but I’m okay. You don’t have to come to the hospital.”

In fact, that young commander – it turns out he’s a distant relative of mine – had 35 shards of metal in him, plus a blown-out eardrum. He and the three soldiers riding with him were lucky to survive, and I penned an account in the attack’s aftermath.

I’m now in the middle of my own balagan with a different class of Palestinians: Well-educated and extremely intelligent high-tech entrepreneurs on the West Bank. While my cousin understated his balagan (to say the very least), mine has me mentally, not physically, injured. And so saddened that it’s taken me weeks to post this.

I wrote a recent cover story for FORBES that was fronted with a photo of Cisco Systems’ CEO, John Chambers, who we tagged a “capitalist diplomat.” The main article was titled “PEACE THROUGH PROFITS: As Israeli and Palestinian politicians lurch towards talks, entrepreneurs have been quietly taking action. Inside the secret partnerships that may save the Middle East.”
A related piece of mine, posted on the same day: “POSITIVELY POSITEAM: A Glimpse Inside Cisco-Israel’s Training of Palestinian Entrepreneurs.”

Following publication, Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the most influential American columnist about the Middle East scene, tweeted: “John Chambers’ ideas for Middle East peace are at least as good as those of John Kerry.” Chambers rang me to say “how proud we all were” of the article, which he called a “signature piece” that he believes “captures many business leaders’ minds and their hearts and hopefully their pocketbooks – to realize that if they invest [in Palestinian IT sector], you can really make a difference.” He and the company put the FORBES  link on their respective Facebook pages.
Another reader, going under the anonymous moniker RICHARDS1052, had a different take on things. “Typical lib Zio bullshit from Forbes,” he tweeted.
Virtually every Israeli who contacted me reacted positively. Many are like Uri Adoni, a partner at Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) – a massive high-technology incubator that is a virtual city within a city – who called it “a great example of an article that will support the efforts that are taking place, and hopefully will also change some of the perception of the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.” Similarly, Intel-Israel was pleased that its own pioneering work — like Cisco, on the outsourcing of R&D work to Palestinian companies – was described.
But the vast majority of Palestinians who were featured by FORBES reacted with disappointment, upset, and sometimes fear or fury. Referring to it as a “political article,” several requested that the entire piece be removed before they would even discuss their feelings with me. (Sorry, that’s not an option.) Some worry that the story will harm their businesses by sparking retaliation from Arab extremists. One says he’s already seeing such a backlash. Only three Palestinians named in our reports spoke positively about them.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS: Palestinians working for a hot tech start-up in Ramallah on April 8th, while a fiery riot forces Israel's military to close the border's checkpoint for several hours (photo: Richard Behar)

My road to Ramallah was paved with good intentions. So what happened? In short, the Palestinian high-tech entrepreneurs who are working closely with Israelis are trying to improve their fledgling, but growing, sector without politics entering the picture. Their views are perfectly understandable, even admirable — but also unrealistic, if not impossible.
A flashback to April: I’m in a chic Mexican restaurant in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank, seated at a table with a group of Palestinian IT experts and entrepreneurs. Several are describing (or demonstrating) their start-ups, as well as projects they’re hoping to launch. I’m smoking apple-flavored tobacco out of a nagila (Middle Eastern water pipe), while sipping the best martini I’ve ever had in the Middle East, frankly. Listening to their stories and absorbing their excitement, I’m having one of the best moments of my three-decade career as a business journalist. I tell my hosts that I like their city so much that I’m going to take a holiday in Ramallah on my next trip to Israel.
Meanwhile, the word “peace” keeps popping into my head as they expound about their goals and impressive accomplishments. I try and swat the word away, like it’s a nasty locust, because I know that most of the Palestinians who are training and/or working with Israelis on high-tech ventures are emphatic that these are not efforts at peace, or a ‘normalization’ of relations — or some kind of tiptoeing substitute for their own state. I get it. They are simply being sensible, taking advantage of the immeasurable knowledge that exists inside their next-door neighbor’s “Start-up Nation” – a global technological powerhouse in a country the size of New Jersey — to help develop a similar economy.
But the locust keeps returning. Try as I might, I can’t kill it.
Thanks to: Prof Gerald M. Steinberg
NGO Monitor and
Bar Ilan University

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