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Global Leaders Fete Israel’s Technological Prowess At Innovation Conference

By Charles Bybelezer | The Media Line

October 25, 2018

Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan (R) talks with the Israeli Prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu during the Israeli Innovation Summit in Jerusalem earlier this week. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Netanyahu headlines event attended by China’s vice premier and leading business figures from around the globe

An estimated 1,500 diplomats, business leaders and others from around the world converged on Tel Aviv Thursday for the Prime Minister’s Israel Innovation Summit, taking place against the backdrop of the 70th anniversary of the Jewish state. Proceedings were highlighted by the inauguration of the Israeli Innovation Center, the manifestation of the life’s work of former Israeli president Shimon Peres, who passed away two years ago.

The primary focus of the conference was to explore new ways to harness the power of innovation—of which Israel is a global leader—to address numerous challenges ranging from poverty to environmental issues to international security.

Among the keynote speakers were Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, who is the highest-ranking diplomat from Beijing to travel to Israel in nearly two decades. One of the main purposes of his trip is the continuation of negotiations—reportedly already in their advanced stages—on a potential free trade agreement between the two countries.

Notably, Israeli exports to China increased by 62 percent in the first eight months of 2018 compared to last year, from $2.14 billion to $3.5 billion; while imports from China rose by 10% over the same time period to $4.9 billion.

For his part Wang, at the conference’s opening gala in Jerusalem, hailed Israelis for their entrepreneurial spirit, going so far as to say that China—the world’s second-largest economy—could learn much from a nation with one-third the population of Shanghai.

“Israel leads the world in electronics, information technology, modern medicine and agriculture,” the vice premier praised, adding that “[my country] is still thriving to achieve modernization. Our arms are wide open for countries to innovate and start businesses in China.”

The politicians were joined on Thursday by business delegations from every continent, including such luminaries as Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google parent company Alphabet, and Jack Ma, head of e-commerce giant Alibaba, who is making his second visit to Israel in six months.

Using the Yiddish word for gall, Ma quipped that, “After being here for four days we have learned two things: innovation and chutzpah. Israel is the country that knows that the most precious resource in the world is not oil or gas, but the human brain.”

The focus on the Chinese market was evident, as strengthening bilateral ties has been a primary goal of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who previously described the partnership as a “match made in heaven.”

“[Our corporation] concentrates on information technology, artificial intelligence and its influence on manufacturing as well as water issues,” Pan Huageng, a shareholder in the Sino-Israel Industrial Park in China, explained to The Media Line. “I have for a long time been very focused on water treatment and protection and Israel is the global leader. We have a lot of success stories dealing with Israeli companies.”

Some of Israel’s most prominent entrepreneurs likewise spoke at the forum, such as Amnon Shashua, Founder of Orcam and Mobileye, the latter of which develops technologies for autonomous vehicles and was bought last year by Intel for $15 billion. Gil Shwed, CEO of Check Point, widely credited with developing the first-ever computer firewall, was another keynote speaker. Senior representatives from major tech companies such as Facebook and Microsoft also were in attendance.

“There are rarely places that combine deep technology and a culture of innovation,” Zack Weisfeld, formerly the head of Microsoft Ventures’ global accelerator program and now President of the Israel-based Accelerating Startup Nations, stressed to The Media Line. “So there is an opportunity to work with corporations and governments in order to leverage this unique mixture of hi-tech and DNA.

“This is why there are so many start-ups In Israel, as well as the degree of freedom given to think and do differently.”

The Israeli Innovation Center was one of Peres’ flagship projects, as the longtime statesman strongly believed that cooperation in hi-tech could transform and usher in a “New Middle East”—the title of a book he wrote—by building bridges that eventually would form the foundation for a lasting regional peace.

“I think Shimon Peres, whose spirit can be felt here today, best explained [why Israel is a global leader in innovation]: He said that the main aspect of being a Jew and an Israeli is dissatisfaction, so we are always curious and always trying to learn. We never accept things as they are,” Dan Gillerman, a former Director of the Bank of Israel and currently a member of the International Advisory Board of Blackstone, a leading global investment company, told The Media Line.

The center aims to advance Peres’ vision while demonstrating Israel’s tremendous ongoing contributions in a vast array of disciplines. To this end, a four-story exhibit chronicles one hundred events that transformed the Jewish state into the “Start-up Nation;” displays cutting-edge Israeli inventions including the fifty newest developments; and even provides visitors with an opportunity to converse with some of the best-known innovators through interactive holograms.

In fact, a virtual image of Peres delivered an address to the summit’s attendees, calling the project’s inauguration “a window to the future [and] a place for dreams…that expresses the desire to leave the next generation better and brighter.”

A key component of Peres’ worldview was the belief that innovation is a key driving force for co-existence, which he naturally applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To this end, he was an architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords that launched the peace process, although twenty-five years later his aim has not been actualized.

In many ways, though, the establishment of the innovation center allows for the prolongation of these efforts.

“We are in transition from an old world to a new world, and my father believed that through science and technology we can hasten the entry into this era in which greatness will come from our ability to innovate and not at the expense of others,” Chemi Peres, Shimon’s son and Chairman of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, under whose auspices the center was built, told The Media Line.

“The greatest mission on earth, as Israelis, as citizens of the world, is to make sure that every boy and every girl has the opportunity to move this mission forward, to bring us into tomorrow and that is what the center is trying to do.”

Before Shimon Peres’ passing he penned another book, “No Room For Small Dreams,” which perfectly encapsulated the central theme of the summit: namely, that by thinking big and breaking down perceived boundaries most anything is possible.

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