The former president and prime minister, who died Wednesday at the age of 93, embodied Israeli entrepreneurship

Former president Shimon Peres attends the opening of the 'Mini World Cup for Peace' soccer event at Herzlyia stadium on May 9, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)
Former president Shimon Peres attends the opening of the ‘Mini World Cup for Peace’ soccer event at Herzlyia stadium on May 9, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)


Former president Shimon Peres, who died Wednesday at the age of 93, was not one to take the easy way out. He urged to seek for a third alternative, one that wasn’t thought of before, whether when fighting for peace or pushing for new technologies.

He urged Israel to embrace innovation, given the lack of natural resources in the so-called land of milk and honey. Even if he was polarizing as a politician, hated by some, loved by others, he was unequivocally respected for his unending energy, optimism and inquisitiveness. He believed anything could be achieved if you really tried.

To dream is simply to be pragmatic, he’d say.

Peres served in the Knesset for nearly half a century, from 1959 until 2007, holding virtually all senior ministerial positions over the years. In 1994, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his Labor Party colleague, then-prime minister Rabin. As prime minister in 1985 he presided over an economic stabilization plan that led to the birth of Israel’s modern economy. Over his long journey in defining the state he believed in, he was also instrumental in fostering the entrepreneurial culture that defines what is today known as the start-up nation.

“All my life I have worked to ensure that Israel’s future is based on science and technology as well as on an unwavering moral commitment,” Peres said in a speech in July, when he laid the cornerstone for the Israeli Innovation Center, which will be part of the Peres Peace House in Jaffa. “They called me a dreamer. But today, when I look at Israel, we all can see clearly that the greater the dream, the more spectacular the results.”

From left: Reuven Rivlin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu try on VR headsets at innovation center event, July 21, 2016 (Courtesy)
From left: Reuven Rivlin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu try on VR headsets at innovation center event, July 21, 2016 (Courtesy)


Start-Up Nation, the bestseller that documents the rise of Israel’s high tech industry, recounts how, as chief buyer of arms in the 1950s, Peres, together with America’s Al Schwimmer, started dreaming about setting up an aeronautics industry for the fledgling country. While other ministers scoffed at the idea, saying Israel wasn’t even capable of building bicycles, Peres prevailed, and prevailed once again with the idea of starting Israel’s nuclear industry, by disregarding rules, funding it off-budget and working around established scientists. As deputy defense minister, he injected funds into defense research and development, creating the foundation for Israel’s contemporary military technology edge.

“Peres was a unique figure in the history of the start-up nation, and that is the reason why he is the most quoted person in our book,” Saul Singer, who authored the book together with Dan Senor, said in a phone interview. “His career covered the whole history of the nation, and he played a critical role in helping Israel transition from a socialist, top-down, concentrated economy to a free-market economy focused on innovation.

“He spent his whole career in government but thought and acted like an entrepreneur in terms of building new things and looking ahead at the next. He always looked to the future and that is what kept him youthful,” Singer said.

Peres urged his fellow Israelis to join his quest for excellence, whether in striving for peace, closing social gaps or creating technologies to better the world. It is probably not chance that his son Chemi is a co-founder of Pitango Venture Capital, one of Israel’s oldest and largest venture funds.

“Shimon Peres will be sorely missed by Israel’s tech community. He was a visionary leader and statesman who represented the best of Israel’s creativity and innovation. His ability to be current, fresh and relevant at an age when most people were winding down their lives will always be an example for us all,” said Jon Medved, a veteran of Israel’s high-tech industry and the CEO of OurCrowd, an equity crowdfunding platform.

“Peres built Israel’s science and business infrastructure for over six decades and seemed to ‘get’ the importance of tech more than any other Israeli or world politician. He could sit with young people and entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv or Davos and provide critical feedback and inspiration to the leaders of tech giants and fresh startups at the same time,” Medved said. “His extraordinary warmth, eternal youth, wit and brilliance is irreplaceable and he made a lasting impact on Israel and the world.”

The aim of Peres’s innovation center is to draw guests from around the world to learn about Israel’s achievements in the high-tech sphere and to strive to close the gaps between the Arab and Jewish populations, and between rich and poor, and lead to regional innovation collaboration, Peres said in July.

“We will prove that innovation has no limits and no barriers. Innovation enables dialogue between nations and between people. It will enable all young people – Jews, Muslims and Christians — to engage in science and technology equally. Here we will emphasize that we can promote peace from childhood, and we will spark the imagination of every boy and girl and enrich their dreams,” he said, his 93-year old voice at times feeble, at others resounding. “We must open our doors to all the populations, ultra-Orthodox and Arabs, so they too can enjoy the fruits of this innovation.”

Peres also called upon Israel’s neighbors to join forces and to create a “start-up region.”

“Peace, innovation and science must be the realm of all. Not only Israel should benefit from the fruit of innovation, but the whole region,” he said. “Let us adopt the road to peace and innovation, which will always be better than war and terror,” Peres said.

He concluded: “Finally, I have one small request – Israel is a dream that came true. Permit me to continue to dream.”

As reported by The Times of Israel