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The Globe and Mail

The Mideast has the material – can Canada build the bridges?

Henri Rothschild is the founding president of the Canada-Israel Industrial R&D Foundation. He has also served as assistant deputy minister, science and technology, and as chief scientist at Industry Canada.

In the Middle East, where every dissonance, difficulty, mistrust and intransigence is under the glare, it is important to also shine a light on things that are actually going well, that reflect a realized potential to bridge communities so that the young people of the region have hope for a future that does not require uprooting themselves to Europe or North America, impoverishing the communities they leave behind.

In Israel, one such overlooked group of engineers, scientists, medical doctors and others are turning this hope into reality by making their own contribution to the "startup nation," to their community and to themselves.

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In early January, the Canada-Israel Industrial R&D Foundation invited 12 companies from Israel's Galilee region for business-to-business meetings with companies in Ontario. Their purpose was to build mutually reinforcing research and other forms of business partnerships. This kind of relationship-building is central to what CIIRDF does, and is one of the reasons why the governments of Canada and Israel established this foundation under a binding bilateral treaty two decades ago. Indeed, bi-national research partnerships are now recognized as an effective way to foster industrial innovation. And Israel, the world-renowned "startup nation," is an ideal partner for Canada and others as a home to leading-edge companies in technologies that define the products of tomorrow's global markets.

The Galilee companies did not disappoint. On the contrary, this visit was the most successful B2B event in CIIRDF's history, in terms of partnering results. There was additional significance to this particular visit: All these companies were established and led by entrepreneurs from Israel's Arab community.

The fact that these Arab companies and entrepreneurs proved to be the equal of those from the Israeli mainstream should not have come as a total surprise. They share a common resolve and resilience that comes from overcoming the many obstacles of day-to-day life in Israel, plus additional ones resulting from their still-marginal role in Israeli society. These companies demonstrate how Arab Israelis, like other Israelis, have successfully learned how to turn obstacles into advantages.

They are also availing themselves of the advantages of being Israeli citizens. These include access to world-class educational facilities and the support of the Office of the Chief Scientist, acknowledged as the world's "gold standard" for encouraging industrial innovation. Added to this are the bridges these companies have built and maintained with scientists, engineers, investors and other mainstays of Israeli society as a whole. What results is an emerging technology-based society that should be viewed as an integral part of the Arab world as well.

The success of this visit suggests that there may be a unique and important role for Canada to play in this process – for example, by reproducing such events and adding entrepreneurs from other parts of the region alongside Israeli and Canadian partners. The cordiality and warmth of the reception the Galilee companies received in their Toronto and Ottawa meetings suggest that Canada's social climate is ready for such badly needed "bridge-building" initiatives.

Here, we can put Canada's touted diversity to positive use, making a contribution to the Mideast while being true to the brand our new federal government is trying to establish at the global level. In short, there is real potential to take this kind of partnering to the next level.

The criteria for additional regional partnerships will be business, technology and the creation of products for the global market. Everyone wins here, including Canada, which gets to establish an example for others, open an important economic front in the region and extend hope to a region sorely in need of it.

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These opinions are the author's own.

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