Can Technology Pave the Road for Peace in the Middle East?

New investments in technology may eventually help Palestinians flourish, but obstacles still loom large.
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Employees work on computers at Exalt Technologies, a company which deals in research and development outsourcing from Cisco and French-American group Lucent-Alcatel, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 7, 2013. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)

RAMALLAH, West Bank - At first glance, it is a tech utopian's dream. For the last two years, several dozen Palestinian entrepreneurs have been getting training from Israeli high tech experts courtesy of the American firm Cisco Systems.

The sessions feature no talk of politics. Instead, Israelis coach Palestinians 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."

Three days later, Kerry unveiled a plan to create $4 billion in private-sector investment in the West Bank and Gaza, the largest economic initiative in the Palestinian territories since the 1993 Oslo accords. He called it a "new model" for economic development in the region.

"We need to partner with the private sector," Kerry said, "because it is clear that most governments don't have the money. And in certain places the private sector actually has a greater ability to move things faster than government does."

Cisco's efforts began five years ago. Encouraged by U.S. and Palestinian officials, the company's CEO, John Chambers, visited Ramallah in 2008. Since then, Cisco has invested $15 million in Palestinian tech startups and training programs.

"It opened the door for Palestinian software companies to do business with international corporations," said Gai Hetzroni, an Israeli Cisco executive who manages the program.

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. PalTel, a large Palestinian telecommunications company, skews the figures, but the tech sector is now larger than the historically dominant agricultural sector.

Ali Taha, another Palestinian participant in the program, said receiving Cisco training helped to boost Palestinian firms' reputation in the tech world - as it has for his own company, Art Technologies. Taha said one potential overseas customer was shocked to hear that such business existed on the West Bank.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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