Abba Eban, Israel's first ambassador to the United Nations, famously quipped that the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It's been 40 years since Eban made his wry observation, but the Arab states have once again proved him right.
In December 2012, Israel introduced a U.N. General Assembly resolution titled "Entrepreneurship for Development" as part of its broader initiative to promote growth in the developing world. The resolution encourages governments to invest in entrepreneurs and create policies that can enable new businesses to take root and flourish. It passed with over 70 percent of member states raising their hands, including many countries without diplomatic ties to Israel. Not only did the entire Arab bloc vote against the measure, however, it waged a determined effort to undermine it from Day One. Arab states first tried to convince other member states to oppose the measure and then, when that failed, they sought to introduce politically charged and detrimental language into the resolution.
Most recently, on June 26, a group of Arab states boycotted a U.N. conference, co-hosted by the Israeli delegation, based on our December resolution. One would think that it's hard to find fault with bringing entrepreneurial innovation, creativity, and ingenuity to bear on some of the world's most pressing problems. Yet, the Arab bloc sought to undermine this event for one simple reason -- Israel was one of the co-hosts. It appears the Arab states would sooner keep their citizens shackled by hardship than accept the key to unlocking progress -- so long as Israel is the locksmith.
Few countries know more about reaping wealth from entrepreneurship than Israel. We are a tiny nation with few natural resources, difficult farming conditions, and persistent adversity. Yet in just 65 years, Israel has become a recognized leader in innovation, with the most startups and the third-highest number of patents per capita in the world. Today, thousands of products enjoyed by millions of people throughout the world -- from drip irrigation technology to flash drives to driving navigation systems -- were born in Israel.
Israel is eager to demonstrate that its evolution from a relatively poor country to a prosperous member of the OECD can be replicated by other states. While most nations welcomed this prospect, Israel's closest neighbors have stubbornly turned their backs.
Ironically, few regions could benefit more from entrepreneurship than the Arab world. According to the World Bank, roughly 20 percent of the population of the Middle East and North Africa lives on less than $2 per day, and income inequality is widening. The Middle East is dripping in oil wealth, but millions of people are starved of basic sustenance -- to say nothing of basic rights and freedoms.
People across the region are crying out for democratic reforms and freedoms; they are hungry for change and have taken to the streets demanding better lives, better economies, and better governance. They are willing to risk their lives to bring an end to the rampant corruption, discrimination, and economic stagnation plaguing the region.
Despite the boycott imposed on our entrepreneurship conference, two Arab countries were in attendance. Their presence proved that it's difficult, but not impossible, to navigate the rough waters of politics in the Middle East. We hope their colleagues will follow suit. For so long as the majority of the Arab world continues to put politics before their own people, both peace and prosperity will remain a distant dream.