Former president Shimon Peres, who died Wednesday at the age of 93, was not one to take the easy way out, always looking for new solutions — whether fighting for peace or pushing for new technologies.
Peres 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 then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, for negotiating the Oslo Accords.
As prime minister in 1985, Peres 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 startup 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.”
“Start-Up Nation,” the best-selling book 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 startup 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 added.
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.
“Shimon Peres will be sorely missed by Israel’s tech community,” said Jon Medved, a veteran of Israel’s high-tech industry and CEO of OurCrowd, an equity crowdfunding platform. “He was a visionary leader and statesman who represented the best of Israel’s creativity and innovation.”
US President Barack Obama plans to attend Peres’s funeral on Friday, the Foreign Ministry said, along with Secretary of State John Kerry. Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton will also take a break from campaigning to attend the funeral with her husband, former president Bill Clinton.
“Peres was the prophet of our high-tech nation and a man who knew how to read the technology map sometimes even better than those in the field,” said Maxine Fassberg, CEO of Intel Israel.
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 a speech in July at the launch of the center.
“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.
Peres also called upon Israel’s neighbors to join forces to create a “startup 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.”
He concluded: “Finally, I have one small request – Israel is a dream that came true. Permit me to continue to dream.”