Davis woos
Middle East
with high tech

Talks with Israelis, Palestinians
wind up governor's world tour

Published Saturday, October 30, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

Mercury News Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Nicknamed the "Silicon Wadi,'' Israel's high-tech prowess has earned the country of 6 million people a reputation as California's kid brother, a small but feisty player in the cyberrevolution.

"Israel has made remarkable progress. If it had 33 million people, it would not be No. 2,'' California Gov. Gray Davis said this week after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Israel, too, has its share of denim-clad 28-year-old millionaires among the 110,000 people working in high technology in Silicon Wadi (wadi is Arabic for valley). And many of the country's top computer minds are lured to California or involved in joint projects with California companies, cooperation that Davis is seeking to deepen.

But less than an hour from Giryat Gat, Israel, where Intel Corp., the Santa Clara-based chip maker, has a $1.5 billion plant, lies the village of Al-Kaabneh, an isolated Bedouin encampment in the West Bank, where 2,000 Palestinians live without electricity, telephone lines or clean running water.

Here, in a region that still has no final peace treaty with highly developed Israel, children walk six miles by foot each morning through the Judean Desert to attend school. Their parents eke out a living working as laborers within Israel or selling tapestries that the women have been weaving the same way for 5,000 years.

Enter Greenstar Development World-Wide Inc., a Los Angeles-based company that in the past year has installed solar panels on the school, mosque and infirmary, allowing a computer to run and much-needed vaccines to be refrigerated.

With state-of-the-art technology, Greenstar CEO Michael North hopes to leapfrog conventional land-based grids and provide Al-Kaabneh residents with electronic-commerce potential to break out of their poverty and isolation.

Since solar electricity arrived, allowing batteries to be charged, the number of cellular phones in the village has jumped from one to about 20.

Computer reaches village

"This is so important for us,'' said the village's English teacher, Suleiman Najada, who now uses a computer to print out test papers and to look up information for the first time in his career. "We are very far from the world. But now we feel like we are at the center of the world.''

Thursday, North brought a modem to the village to hook up the sole computer to the Internet. By February, he will install a miniature two-way satellite to give full Web access. The aim, he said, is to market online not only the colorful tapestries the village produces (www.greenstar.org/March99/products.htm) but also a handcrafted, single-string instrument called the rababa, and an ancient slingshot of the type that David most likely used to slay Goliath not far away, according to the biblical account.

Liquid Audio Inc. of San Jose has already been involved in marketing digitally recorded traditional Bedouin music from Al-Kaabneh that North recorded straight to an Apple PowerBook.

For Greenstar, Al-Kaabneh provides a prototype that the company hopes to take to the most remote regions of the developing world. More than 40 countries have made requests to the company since its inception a year ago. And Jordan, Jamaica and Tanzania are on North's short list.

Greenstar's Al-Kaabneh project is an example of the many Californian high-tech solutions that Davis had in mind when he set out on his Middle East tour, a four-day visit to Israel, Palestinian Gaza and Egypt that wound up Friday. The trip, with several California business executives in tow, capped a 14-day journey that began in London and included Ireland and Greece.

In Gaza on Wednesday, Davis met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is hoping that a conclusion of a final peace deal with Israel next year will finally bring his people economic development.

"We are starting from below zero, for electricity, water for telecommunications, radio and TV, hospitals and schools -- for everything,'' said Arafat. "But we are advancing on many paths. We are proud that we have the highest rate of higher education in the area.''

Gray said Californians would like to get in on the ground floor in Palestinian Authority areas, and stressed the state's expertise in wastewater management and water supply for Gaza, which, like most of the Middle East, is in the midst of a severe drought.

Meeting Arabs, Israelis

"We think our high-tech economy can play a big role in the prosperity that will follow the peace,'' said Davis, citing Sun Microsystems Inc. and Oracle Corp. as two companies already active in the Palestinian Authority.

Then it was on to Tel Aviv, Israel's business center, where Davis spoke to the Israel America Chamber of Commerce, and Jerusalem for a meeting with Barak.

Like Davis, Barak attended Stanford University and, like Davis, is a highly decorated former military commander. "We really hit it off,'' said Davis, who focused on economic opportunities.

As in Gaza, Davis declined to speak about the peace process, stressing that his role is in carving a place for California in the era of prosperity that will follow the peace.

"California has a good story to tell and I told it to the leaders of the region,'' said Gray. "Business, like stability and predictability and a widened peace, will offer that.''

Specifically, the two spoke of California's edge in environmental technology; the state is home to 22 percent of America's environmental companies. Both TetraTac and Environ have put in bids to clean up one hazardous-waste project. And Barak told Davis of another problem site not far from the U.S. ambassador's residence.

Barak to visit California

With Israel poised to withdraw from more of the West Bank and potentially from the Golan Heights in the north as part of a peace treaty with Syria, Davis also told Barak of California's experience transforming military bases to civilian use and disposing of chemicals and munitions. And Barak accepted an invitation to visit California, possibly within a year to 18 months.

The Israeli prime minister lit up with recognition at the sight of Zvi Alon, owner of the San Jose software company Netmanage Inc. "I met Barak in San Jose just before the election,'' said Alon, an Israeli-born Californian who founded Israel's largest Internet server company, Netvision. Alon called the governor's trip "awesome,'' saying it would surely boost two-way trade.

"Networking like this is so important. People make connections,'' he said.

A "networking'' trip in February to Egypt, organized by the California Department of Trade and Commerce, led DriWater Inc. of Santa Rosa to complete deals worth $4.8 million with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan during this week's trip. An additional $25 million in sales in the three countries is pending for the company, which supplies farmers with water suspended in semisolid gel packets that, when placed at the roots of certain plants, can provide 24-hour-a-day moisture for months.

Water 'an age-old problem'

"The problem of water scarcity has plagued the Middle East for centuries,'' said Davis, praising DriWater's success. "I'm glad a California company is having a profound impact on . . . an age-old problem.''

While in Egypt on Thursday, the governor also announced that Accurate Sound Corp. of Menlo Park won a two-year contract worth more than $2 million to supply air traffic-control recording equipment to the Egyptian government.

Back in Israel on Friday, Davis met with former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, now minister of regional cooperation. And at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev Desert, the governor signed a memorandum of understanding to promote biotechnology and environmental-technology exchanges between California and Israel.

Israel ranks as California's 25th-largest export market, with exports totaling $726 million in 1998. Egypt ranks as California's 42nd-largest export market, with 1998 exports totaling $199 million.