Tech, prosperity and peace in West Bank

At first glance, it is a tech utopian’s dream. For the last two years several dozen Israeli and Palestinian high-tech entrepreneurs have been quietly meeting at a Dead Sea resort that Palestinians can visit without receiving permits from the Israeli military.

Funded by the American high-tech giant Cisco Systems, the meetings feature little talk of settlements or suicide bombings. Instead, Palestinians are coached on the latest trends in software development processes, best practices and branding.
“From my own perspective, it was a very successful training,” said Saeed Zeidan, chief executive officer of a small Palestinian startup. “We managed to improve our services.” The training sessions are an example of privately funded economic initiatives that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have praised in recent trips here. In his March visit, Obama lauded Cisco’s efforts. In a landmark speech in Washington last week, where he tried to redefine the “war on terror,” Obama said it was vital for the United States to help countries in the region “modernize economies, upgrade education and encourage entrepreneurship.”
Dozens of other Israel-based companies have followed Cisco’s example and hired Palestinian firms for outsourcing work. Palestinian firms now also work for Hewlett-Packard, Alcatel-Lucent and other American and European tech giants.
Today, 250 Palestinian information and technology companies produce 6.1 percent of Palestinian economic activity, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently reported. Researchers working with Quarter representative Tony Blair and international business leaders have identified “stunning” opportunities for private investment in tourism, light manufacturing and construction, Kerry said. This week, however, Kerry’s optimism ran into the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Palestinians’ reactions to his proposal were generally positive, but the history of failed past initiatives loomed large.
Many Palestinians — including participants in Cisco’s program — cautioned that economic investment was not a substitute for the creation of a Palestinian state. They have been complaining for years that Israeli restrictions on the movement of people and goods in the West Bank strangle the local economy. Economic proposals involving private companies involve little political risk. Reaching a peace settlement, however, means Israeli, Palestinian and US officials must take enormous risks. Peace is not possible ion the political cheap.

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