Sometimes business can build the bridges politics can’t.
For the last nine years, Cisco Systems Inc., the U.S. networking and communications company, has been investing heavily in the Palestinian information and communications technologies sector through its Israeli division.
In 2008, Cisco’s then-CEO John Chambers and Israel’s then-president Shimon Peres launched a digital cities initiative to build business relationships between Arab and Jewish cities. Chambers committed to investing $10 million over four years in what he called a new model of job creation.
By investing in both the Palestinian infrastructure and the training of their entrepreneurs in the information and communications technologies sector, Cisco in Israel helped startup companies there compete for outsourcing work with other markets such as India.
The results speak for themselves. Over the four years of the original initiative, the percentage of the Palestinian gross domestic product attributable to the tech sector increased by eight times. The number of international clients taken on by tech firms in the territories increased by 64 percent.
Among the companies employing engineers from the territories has been Cisco itself. “We started with 10 employees, then it became 40,” said Zika Abzuk, who oversaw the Palestine Investment Commitment for Cisco. “A couple of projects have closed and new projects have opened, but we maintain 40 Palestinian engineers working for us.”
Abzuk and her colleagues were eager to make introductions between the Palestinian entrepreneurs and other leaders in Israel’s tech field, such as Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, encouraging them to partner with the Palestinian companies.
Abzuk remains optimistic about political change that will improve the business climate between Israel and the West Bank. “I believe part of it could come from the economic changes we’re trying to make happen. Israeli startup companies had started using the Palestinian companies, and there’s a rising interest in continuing that.” Mellanox Technologies, an Israeli supplier of networking devices, employs 100 Palestinian engineers in the West Bank and Gaza, Abzuk said. “And Microsoft is looking to employ more, so it is happening.”