The 12-hour humanitarian cease-fire this weekend was the longest pause in fighting since this conflict began three weeks ago. Gaza has been pummeled and nearly 2,500 rockets have rained incessantly over Israel. The death tolls have risen dramatically since the ground incursion that has called for the activation of 56,000 reservists. A massive labyrinth of tunnels has been uncovered, made more alarming by the armed invaders that used them to enter two kibbutzim in southern Israel. Everywhere is the face of weariness. Is there an end in sight?
Maintaining resolve among the populace is a strategic element for Israel. Being so close to the battle, the long-fight becomes that much more difficult to stomach. Not only are regular citizenry targeted, but an increasing number of people have skin in the game via loved ones. About 1 in 10 Israelis are an active or reserve member in the armed forces. The U.S. by comparison has under one percent of its population in the active or reserve forces. In the office, three IDF reserve co-workers have been activated, not an insignificant loss to a small start-up firm. Our landlord notified us that he may be called up for duty today. And a number of people we interact with are anxiously watching their children go into battle.
Amidst it all, people must find a way to operate normally. More importantly, they must show the outside world that normal life endures in spite of it all.
This sentiment was heard resoundingly from Professor Eugene Kandel, head of the National Economic Council in the Prime Minister’s Office, during the video conference at the California-Israel Innovation Project Economic Roundtable on July 21 in San Diego. This meeting of the minds, spearheaded by Rady’s own U.S.-Israel Center on Innovation and Economic Sustainability, brought together about 50 of the top academic, business, political and philanthropic leaders from California and Israel to define the way forward with the California-Israel Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Signed by Governor Brown and Prime Minister Netanyahu in March, the MOU laid the foundation for our internships this summer. Jamie and I attended the conference from Jerusalem, along with Professor Kandel, Uri Gabai, Director of Strategy and Economic Research at the Office of the Chief Scientist, and Steven Zecher, Head of Regional Development and Project Finance at the Milken Institute Israel Center.
The roundtable was a great launching point to give the MOU some teeth. California State Senator Marty Block, 39th District, was in attendance and noted that he had introduced a bill to make the MOU a legislative matter, giving the state senate legistlature authority to act on the MOU in the future. Steve Zecher pointed out that an essential element of the MOU is the development of human capital through programs such as the internships that Jamie and I are doing now. In time, we may see these intern positions linked with fellows of the Milken Institute Israel Center to work together on projects that address Israel’s social, environmental and economic challenges.
After an opening in which Dean Sullivan challenged the participants to make measurable progress, speakers of the video conference highlighted important areas for which the Israel-California partnership would be particularly helpful, such as: water sustainability (California is in the midst of one of its most severe droughts and Israel now has a water surplus), agriculture (arid land and yield enhancement), and renewable energy (BrightSource Energy, now based out of Oakland, began in Israel and has built the largest solar thermal plant in the world in California’s Mojave Desert). Professor Kandel began his statements by thanking the group for attending and “helping to keep things moving” in the midst of conflict and harrowing media reports. “Life goes on,” he said.
Indeed it does. We broke away from the Tel-Aviv routine this weekend to visit Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, an hour-train ride’s distance to the north. It’s a scenic track that darts along the crystal blue eastern Mediterranean and floats into the greener regions of the country. Exiting the HaShmona train station, Mount Carmel immediately dominates the landscape and the Bahai Gardens summon all attention. With 19 perfectly landscaped terraces spanning over a mile, it is hard not to look and admire. A monit, or taxi, drove us up to the golden temple, the resting place of the Bab, the prophet-herald of the Bahai faith. Visitors are welcome in the temple and surrounding gardens, the detail to which they are tended perfectly suited to the vantage they command. Nothing in the western shadow of Mount Carmel can hide from the view of this terrace; the accompanying serenity is just as powerful. Who knew the scene could get better? A short sherut ride to the Yefe Nof Balcony will do just that. It’s the uppermost entrance to the gardens and the starting point for a free guided tour given to visitors every day. From there it’s about 40 minutes and over 700 steps down to the exit with stops every few terraces to soak in more views and learn a bit about the Bahais. After the tour, we made our way to the bottom of the mountain to have a meal in the German Colony, the historical site of colonial Germany in Haifa from the mid-19th century until the end of World War II.
Back in Tel-Aviv, an Iron Dome interception in the distance served as a reminder of the current war. Keeping “things moving” is facing difficulty in some areas – the need for political stability in business is in full display. At Driivz, where I intern, communicating the conflict it is a matter of business strategy, and is especially important when large and important clients are foreign firms. Clients must understand that their services will continue to be delivered and remain of high quality. Small businesses in the southern cities such as Ashkelon are struggling as many residents remain inside near shelters. And even markets in Tel-Aviv seem less vibrant than in weeks past. The FAA flight ban to Israel, followed by major European airlines, while short-lived, can have a much greater impact on business in Israel. It further conveys a message of instability. Business relationships suffer . Tourism suffers.
And so it is that people will find a way to keep moving and remain resilient. The notion is best conveyed by the story of the Iscar Metalworking Company which never missed a delivery despite being smack in the middle of constant rocket fire on the Israel-Lebanese border during the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway purchased 80% of the company that year noting that they were investing in “an amazing group of people.” Last year, Berkshire Hathaway finished the job and purchased the remaining 20% for $2.05 billion.
At Driivz, operations haven’t missed a beat and services continue to be delivered even as we lose personnel to the fight. That’s not to say the weariness isn’t palpable. We’re all waiting for the end hoping it comes soon. But in the meantime, we’ll continue to see the sites, to do business as usual, and to press on.