In my last post I wrote about the war in Gaza, and how what is happening there should be seen as a sideshow in a much broader global clash, that increasingly seeks to pit “Us” (secular globalists of all sorts) against “Them” (extremists and fundamentalists of all sorts).
It was the most widely read piece I have ever written. In two days I got more hits than I normally get in a month. I also received many emails and messages in response. Most were supportive and sympathetic, and a few expressed thoughtful disagreement. But there were also some so virulent and ugly they proved my point, in a scary kind of way. Like “your day of reckoning will come, Jew”, and “someone should drop a bomb on Tel Aviv and wipe you scum out”. There are some really twisted, hate-filled people out there.
Anyway, a week later I spent a few days at a friend’s house in Somerset, England. At dinner one evening I sat next to an English gent who I assume had read my piece, because somewhere between main course and dessert he turned to me and asked: “So, Mr Blogger, what’s the answer for Gaza then? Or do both sides just keep killing each other for all eternity?”
A pretty decent question, I must admit, and one that more than a few people have recently posed to me. I mean, it’s all very well to dish up a diagnosis, but it feels kind of hollow to then cop out when it comes to the cure: “don’t ask me how to fix anything; I just like scribbling words on paper”.
And as I have gnawed over that question since then, three travel experiences keep coming to mind. Three brief but very specific encounters I have been incredibly lucky to have had, with three very different, yet equally inspiring, world leaders. Encounters which have become foundation planks of how I look at the world, so I thought it might be worth sharing them.
Dinner in Beijing (2005)
I have previously written about my good fortune to have travelled as “sidekick” and bag-carrier-in-chief to Paul Keating, Australia’s much loved (or loathed) former Prime Minister (from 1991 – 1996).
Post-politics Paul served for a while as the Chairman of a firm I worked at, and in that capacity I accompanied him on a number of overseas trips. Paul may no longer be in public office, but in Asia he is the political equivalent of an aging rock star, treated with respect and veneration wherever he goes. His regional tours have an “unofficial statesman” slant to them, where he often meets with current and former leaders and politicians, many of whom he now considers to be personal friends.
So schlepping along with Paul gave me a ringside seat at some truly amazing get-togethers, where I got to meet people normally seen only on the evening news. And where I got to hear first-hand the private thoughts of folks directly responsible for shaping the world we live in.
On one occasion in Beijing we were invited to the home of one of China’s most influential former Party honchos. It was an informal catch-up between two ex-leaders who knew each another well, and the guest list that evening was confined to the former Australian prime-minister, the former vice-premier of China, and me. As dinner party invites go, this one was pretty awesome.
I sat there like a silent fly on the wall, listening to a conversation peppered with personal references to world leaders, first-person anecdotes about global events, and coal-face views on current affairs. Our Chinese host spoke perfect English, and he and Paul chatted effortlessly, one minute discussing global financial policy, the next their respective families. It seems even the political elite have children and grandchildren who can get up to no good at times….
At one point in the conversation Paul rather abruptly commented that China’s resistance to widespread democracy was “downright backward”. I almost choked on my soup. Here we were in the home of one of China’s most powerful men, and Paul was blatantly trashing Communist Party policies.
I kind of half expected that storm troopers would burst through the doors to drag us away, but Paul’s friend just smiled at him with evident amusement. Clearly, he was not at all surprised by this trademark directness. He paused for a few seconds, and then in a slow and very measured way offered this simple reply: “Paul, what makes you think in fifty years China won’t be a full democracy?”
Even Paul seemed surprised at this retort. Our host continued: “Political change happens, and will of course happen in China. But unlike you Westerners, always in a hurry, the Chinese believe that good change happens slowly. People must be ready for it, and it can’t disrupt society. So when we think of change, we don’t think of a year, or five years, or the next election. We think of decades and generations. Trust me, there is no-one in the senior leadership who does not think that as China advances, democracy won’t advance here too”.
Moral of the story: change can and will happen, but might need to be measured across the longer term.
It took fifty years from the first World Zionist Congress, held in Basel in 1897, until the modern State of Israel was created, in 1948. It has taken sixty years and several wars for Israel to achieve a modicum of acceptance in its neighborhood. It has been forty years since Gaza came under Israeli control, and a mere nine years (almost to the day) since Israel withdrew from Gaza. A recent assessment estimates it might take about twenty years to rebuild Gaza’s battered infrastructure after the most recent conflict.
All of which might sound like long periods of time. But on a Chinese scale, they are mere blips. And whilst I don’t know exactly how long it will take, something tells me that any solution for Gaza will take much longer to eventuate than most of us think. There is no magic bullet for this one.
Lunch in Singapore (2006)
Gaza is a tiny wedge of land about 40 kilometres from top to bottom and 12 kilometres wide, yet home to about 1.8 million Palestinians, making it one of the most densely populated places on earth. Gaza is also not a very rich place, with annual GDP per capita of about US$6,000. This is more than a lot of really poor African and Asian countries, but a long way south of anything we are familiar with in the West. And Gaza is essentially a strip of sand by the sea, with not much to speak of in the way of natural resources.
These factors are often cited as being amongst the reasons why Gaza is not just a thorny, but near intractable, problem. How can we seriously expect to ever see a viable nation-state emerge in a place that is more or less a barren, small, yet over-crowded patch of desert?
But I lived in Singapore for ten years, another place that in global terms is an insignificant dot on the map. Singapore is a self-contained island, 50 kilometres from east to west, and about 20 kilometres from top to bottom. Not all that different, size-wise, to Gaza.
Singapore came into existence in 1965, at which point its population was about 1.5 million, roughly the same as Gaza, and annual GDP per head was $516, which if adjusted for time and inflation is similar to Gaza today. And just like Gaza, Singapore has no natural resources to speak of – limited land, limited space, and dependent on imports for food, power and even fresh water. Not to mention that Singapore was born into a tough neighbourhood, flanked by Malaysia and Indonesia, both of whom were less than enamoured with the creation of this upstart island State.
But roll forward the Singapore clock fifty years, and what do you find?
Well, Singapore has expanded to more than five million people, making it significantly more crowded than Gaza. Although you would never know it, given that the island is covered in parks and greenery, dotted with shiny skyscrapers, and everything is meticulously organised and spotlessly clean.
Singapore has also become one of the world’s major commercial hubs, with a massive presence in shipping, banking, high-end manufacturing, and healthcare. A multiracial population co-exists peacefully, enjoying a high quality, thoroughly first-world lifestyle. Its military is a regional powerhouse, notwithstanding the country’s tiny size, and Singapore’s annual GDP per head is US$51,000, a thousand fold increased from 1965, making Singapore the third richest country in the world.
All in all, an inspiring example of what can be cooked up even with very poor ingredients to start with. A staggering transformation effected in less than two generations, and a model of hope for what might one day be possible in Gaza, as well as every other blighted spot on the planet.
So what’s the Singaporean secret sauce?
For me, the answer to that question presented itself eight years ago, when I was invited to a corporate lunch, at which Lee Kuan Yew had agreed to address a small group of company executives.
LKY, as he is affectionately known in Singapore, is the country’s founding father. He served as the first Singaporean Prime Minister, from 1965 to 1990. When he retired from office, he adopted the role of “Senior Minister”, and later on, the role of “Minister Mentor”. At the time he was 84, and had been out of office for 17 years, but was still widely regarded as the bloke who ran Singapore behind the scenes (his son is the current PM).
His age meant he was unable to stand comfortably at a lectern, so instead he sat in an arm-chair on a raised podium, which made him seem quite small and frail. He wore a short-sleeve printed open-necked shirt, and his thin grey hair was combed back. So he looked less like the architect of the Singapore miracle and more like a Chinese grandfather on a day out from the old-aged home.
Until, that is, he opened his mouth. He suggested that he might dispense with his prepared speech, and instead just take questions from the group. He then proceeded to answer them for the next two hours, speaking without the aid of notes, and drawing on an extraordinary reservoir of knowledge that seemed to span everything from current events to history to pop culture. He spoke eloquently, without a single “um” or moment of hesitation, cracked jokes, illustrated his points with fascinating anecdotes, and displayed a razor-sharp insight that the years had obviously done nothing to blunt.
It was, in short, a truly virtuoso performance, that inspired total confidence in everything Lee Kuan Yew had to say that day. I was utterly spell-bound the whole time. When lunch concluded I felt almost exhausted, like I had just spent a few hours trying to keep up in a mental foot-race with a visionary. But I also felt exhilarated. LKY is one of those rare people who seem to radiate pure intelligence, and I had been privileged enough to experience it up close.
From all of his remarks that day, one thing was clear: Lee Kuan Yew had a hand in shaping almost every aspect of modern-day Singapore, in a very deliberate kind of way. He had thought long and hard about the type of society he was charged with creating. And then he had implemented that vision, approaching the whole business of nation-building with discipline, intellect and commitment. Despite the inevitable mistakes along the way, he had stuck to his guns, unwaveringly convinced in the rightness of what he was doing.
All in all pretty inspirational stuff and I couldn’t help concluding that Singapore had been blessed. Whether by design or sheer good luck, the country had landed up with one super-smart guy at the helm, simultaneously benevolent in intent but possessing the authority / courage needed to see his vision through. And which, over the course of fifty years, has made all the difference.
Now if only leaders of this calibre were in charge in Israel and Gaza….
Coffee in Tel Aviv (2007)
From 2006 to 2008 I was responsible for the opening of an Israeli office of the investment firm at which I worked, and through which we considered a number of significant investments in the country. We also hired a few high-profile ex-politico types to help us out.
All of which made some ripples in the Israeli business pond, a consequence of which being that I got invited to meet with various Israeli ministers, politicians and bureaucrats. The highlight being an invitation to meet with Shimon Peres: national pioneer, elder statesman of Israeli politics, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and a man who has held almost every ministerial position in Israel, including twice serving as Prime Minister. When I met Peres he was Israel’s President-elect, a position he held from 2007 until only a few months ago, when his term ended.
A colleague and I were ushered into his Tel Aviv office, which was jam-packed with memorabilia from a life in the public eye. Certificates, awards, plaques, and framed photos of Peres with a who’s-who of world leaders covered the walls. His desk was buried under papers, the shelves overloaded with books, and the whole office had a warm, stately feel to it.
For about ten minutes I sat on the couch, nervously waiting for the great man to arrive. I rehearsed in my head what I would say, and expected that it would be a perfunctory five minute audience – a quick hello and handshake before being shuttled out by one of Peres’ many minders.
A nervousness that became almost palpable when he finally walked into the room – silver-haired, upright, and almost regal in his bearing. But then he sat down on the couch, right next to me, and spoke to me in fluent, albeit heavily accented, English. “So Eytan, what can I tell a nice Jewish boy like you about Israel?”, he began, and it in that instant it felt he had transformed right in front of my eyes, from being a luminary of global politics into a kind and gentle Yiddishe grandfather.
Before I knew it, we had been chatting for twenty-five minutes. The whole time, he barely broke eye contact with me. He didn’t answer the phone, or look around once, and for the entire time I spent talking to him, it felt like I was the only thing that mattered in his life at that very moment.
At one point he asked whether I had ever considered moving to Israel, and leaning in close placed a hand on my knee and said, in an almost conspiratorial whisper: “You know, when I was your age, David Ben-Gurion once told me……” I honestly can’t remember anything else that came after, because I was overwhelmed at the sheer insanity of the scenario: Shimon Peres, in person, passing on to me wisdom he had learned from Ben-Gurion. I mean, come on, seriously?
As with Lee Kuan Yew, after a few minutes it was clear that I was in the presence of someone possessed of a truly gifted, extraordinary intellect, deeply thoughtful and inquisitive and willing to challenge the status quo no matter how entrenched that might be (Peres has swapped politics repeatedly over the years, ditching ideology in favour of his personal belief in what is right). His knowledge bank was vast, and he seemed remarkably “in touch”. At one point he mentioned something about his iPod, which I thought was pretty extraordinary, given that I was less than half his age and still didn’t have one (I later read that even though in his seventies at the time, Peres had championed the early adoption of the internet in Israel, and became the first ever Prime Minister to have a personal web-site).
But more than anything, two things are especially memorable to me from that meeting. The first was Peres’ energetic, infectious optimism, and the second was his ability to communicate complex thoughts in a way that was clear and simple, reducing difficult issues into much easier to understand components.
During our meeting Peres mentioned a plan to develop a large-scale irrigation scheme to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, along the way supporting massive agricultural and industrial projects in the desert on territory shared by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Known as the “Valley of Peace Initiative”, it is one of Peres’ pet projects, never mind that almost everyone else I had ever met in Israel considered it to be a fanciful pipedream, of no relevance other than to show how their President-to-be had finally lost his marbles.
Although when Shimon Peres himself described it to me, with maps and diagrams and passion in his voice, it seemed anything but fanciful. Whatever the technical merits, it was obvious while listening to this brilliant man speak that he saw it as being a physical manifestation of a very precise and deeply held view on how to change things in Israel, for the better.
“You know what the solution is?” he asked me, before immediately launching into the answer to his own question: “The solution is for the Palestinians to become rich”.
He continued: “When I was young, what mattered was territory. A nation needed to have a physical territory with a clear border to defend. But now we live in a world where it is almost impossible to control how people and ideas move around, so borders don’t matter that much. In today’s world, economics is what matters. If people are well-off, they won’t risk that for the sake of ideology. But if people have nothing to lose, well then, what can you expect of them? Long-term peace with our neighbours will come when we are all joined together economically, and when they are as well-off as we are. Then they will lose the will to fight with us”.
In many respects, a sophisticated rehash of Tom Friedman’s “Golden Arches Theory”, which posits that “no two countries with McDonald’s in them will ever go to war”, the theory being that once a middle-class grows big enough to support burger chains, they have little interest in pursuing war and conflict. And whilst subsequent commentators have taken much delight in finding examples where the McDonald’s theory has proven untrue, it certainly makes intuitive sense to me. Especially as explained by Shimon Peres.
In the end, it’s always about the money. D’uh.
Like I said at the start, I don’t really have an answer for you. I wish it were that easy. But whatever the solution, I believe it will ultimately require “Them” – the extremists and fundamentalists – to be eliminated, or at least marginalised. Yet no matter what we do, military muscle can only contain “Them”, it can never truly stamp them out. To win this particular war, we will need to find a way to make most of “Them” become part of “Us”.
And that will require visionary leaders to step forward, with a long-lens view of time, who are willing to champion the cause of economic wellbeing. Not, mind you, of their own people, which is something all good leaders do. Rather, I am talking of leaders with the courage and conviction needed to push forward the economic wellbeing of the other side, even if they may be their present-day enemies.
Admittedly a tall order, and in the fog of smoke and fire that hangs over Gaza at the moment, hard to see how this could ever happen. But that is no reason to abandon hope, or to give up trying. As Shimon Peres was once quoted as saying: “Optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist”.