• Saturday, July 20, 2024
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BusinessDay

Next year in Jerusalem

Israel

The German Kaiser once asked his Chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck:“Can you prove the existence of God?” Bismarck was supposed to have replied: “The Jews, your majesty. The Jews.” The return of the Jews to the Land of Promise after 2000 years of dispersal is a miracle of our times. Hebrew, a virtually dead language, has been resuscitated. It is the national lingua franca.

Albert Einstein was offered the Presidency of Israel in 1952. He politely declined, saying, “All my life I have dealt with objective matters, hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions”. The prize went to another Nobel scientist, Chaim Weizmann.

What are the lessons to be learned from the world’s premier start-up nation?

First, a strong sense of nationhood and destiny. Israel was born in adversity and sustained by hope. To survive, they had to evolve a strong sense of national identity rooted in Zionism and the humane ethics of Jewish civilization. Israel is a Jewish State. But it is also a multiethnic democracy, in which 20.95% of the population are Palestinian Arabs. They have full rights as citizens, but they cannot serve in the army. This sense of national destiny is reinforced by mass mobilization and compulsory military service for young men and women from age 18.

Israel today has more companies listed on NASDAQ than any other country outside the United States. Venture capitalists have invested more in Israel than in Singapore, India, South Korea and the EU

Second, agrarian transformation. Through the kibbutzim movement, the foundation was laid for agrarian self-sufficiency. Israel is not only self-sufficient in food; it is a major exporter of agricultural produce. Through their innovative drip-irrigation system, they have reclaimed the desert into vineyards of prosperity. The country is a major exporter of fish, citrus and other products.

Third, human capital and innovation. Israel’s chief wealth is its people. The government has invested massively in human capital as the key to national development. There is universal success to health care. The country has excellent schools and universities. Institutions such as the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Technion, Tel Aviv University, University of Haifa and Weizmann Institute of Rehovot compare favourably with the best universities in the world. Israeli education places a premium on the STEM disciplines. Israeli R&D has led to technological spin-offs in sectors such as medicine, robotics, computer science, telecoms, avionics and defence.

Dan Senor and Saul Singer have written a bestseller, Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle (Hatchette, 2009). It showcases the impressive achievements of the country in technology and innovation. Israel today has more companies listed on NASDAQ than any other country outside the United States. Venture capitalists have invested more in Israel than in Singapore, India, South Korea and the EU.

An American journalist, Jason Gerwith, wrote a fascinating book, Israel’s Edge (Gefen, 2016). It examines the role of Israel’s rather secretive Talpiot project of recruiting and training scientific geniuses for its military-industrial complex. It has given the country a lead in terms of military capability.

Fourth, macroeconomic stabilization and institutional reforms. Ambitious reforms and market-friendly institutional development has brought sustainable growth. Israel enjoys a high level of state effectiveness. The central bank is world-class. The civil service delivers. The justice system is effective. Corruption is rigorously punished without regard to station or rank. In December 2010, for example, former President Moshe Katsav was sentenced to seven years in prison for corruption. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted and served 18 months for several felonies.

Fifth, foreign investment and partnerships. Israel’s liberal, open economy provides a robust eco-system for FDI. Silicon Wadi, outside Tel Aviv, is second only to Silicon Valley in terms of the number of technology firms. Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook have a strong presence in Silicon Wadi. Israel also leverages on its Diaspora networks and partnerships with the USA, Germany, Singapore and other countries. In August 2020, the Abraham Accords were signed with the Gulf States and Bahrain; signaling normalization of relations with the Arab world.

Sixth, quality leadership. Israel has been blessed with great leaders. The first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was a statesman of vision and courage. Other great leaders include Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Peres, regarded as the architect of Israel’s technological transformation, was once quoted as saying: “Israeli children should be taught to look to the future, not live in the past. I would rather teach them to imagine than to remember.”

Credit must also go to the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An engineering graduate and an MBA from MIT, Israel’s youngest and longest serving Prime Minister understands both technology and business. A hawk in defence matters; he has sought peace out of a position of strength, not weakness. His leadership has undoubtedly brought security as well as prosperity to Israel.

In the 1960s, Israel opened up diplomatic relations with many of the newly independent African countries. Technical cooperation agreements were reached in areas such as education, agriculture and infrastructures. Israeli companies had a presence in many of our countries. However, by the late seventies, Israel began to pull out. One factor was the boycott by several OAU member states, particularly the Arabs of North Africa following the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The other was the aftermath of the 1976 Entebbe Raid, which felled Jonathan Netanyahu, elder brother to Benjamin Netanyahu.

In July 2016, in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the Entebbe Raid, Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Uganda and Kenya; bringing with him businesspeople and investors. In June 2017, Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the ECOWAS Summit in Monrovia. For reasons that remain unclear, Nigeria did not attend that historic summit.

The world has changed. There are considerable mutual benefits to be gained from cooperation between Africa and Israel. Africa needs Israeli capital, technology and savoir-faire. Israel needs our natural resources, goodwill and markets. Nigeria will benefit greatly by scaling up its business relations with Israel. Next year in Jerusalem!