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Israel Diary: Hyper-Alert Security Guards, Hyper-Creative Tech Geeks, and an Upcoming Interview with President Peres

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My Dinner with Ehud

JERUSALEM -- I arrived in Tel Aviv, at the Ben Gurian Airport, at 6:30 Sunday evening and went straight to the Yoezer Wine bar, a charming restaurant in Jaffa, housed in an old stone building that dates back to the Ottoman Empire.

I was there to have dinner with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his wife Nili, who were leaving at midnight for Washington for meetings at the White House, as well as prominent Israeli venture capitalist, Meir Barel, of Star Ventures, fellow Greek Sabby Mionis, and Avital Leibovich, the spokesperson for the Foreign Press Division of the Israeli military.

Barak is Israel's most decorated soldier. A warrior turned politician, he is a former Prime Minister and Labor Party leader who was asked to join Netanyahu's government. Their relationship dates back 25 years, to when Barak was a grad student at Stanford and Netanyahu was a grad student at MIT. Another bond between the two would-be rivals is the close friendship of Barak and Netanyahu's brother Yonatan, a commando who was killed in the famed raid on Entebbe in Uganda.

During dinner, Barak's security detail stood guard around the table, guns at the ready and on full display. One of the guards stood directly behind the Defense Minister. Even though he was stationary, his eyes -- and, it seemed, his brain -- were in constant motion. He was an adrenaline rush come to life. In comparison, the Secret Service detail that guards the U.S. president seems positively laid back.

During his time as Prime Minister, Barak ended Israel's military occupation of southern Lebanon, and was part of the failed Camp David summit with Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat. Given this, I asked him to compare George W. Bush's leadership to Obama's when it comes to Israel. "I'm an ABB," he said. "Anyone But Bush. Obama is investing a lot of his political capital in the peace process, and it's important that we don't waste this moment."

And what would it take to break through the current stalemate? "The Palestinian Authority," he told me, "needs to accept becoming an independent Palestinian state even before the borders are finalized."

GarageGeeks

Ever since I first met Yossi Vardi, Israel's Mr. Tech, at the Digital, Life, Design conference in Munich four years ago, he's been telling me about the GarageGeeks, a collection of Israelis from the worlds of electronics, software, art, music, gaming, and hacking, who gather at a large warehouse in the Holon Industrial Zone, south of Tel Aviv.

So, of course, a meeting with the GarageGeeks was the first thing Yossi put on my schedule as soon as I knew I was going to Israel.

Yossi is a legend in the Israeli tech community, having pioneered Instant Messaging, selling his company Mirabilis in 1998 for over $400 million, and paving the way for an explosion of Israeli startups hoping to duplicate his success. Yossi's impact became known as "the Mirabilis Effect."

As we got together for dinner before my meeting with the Geeks, it hit me how perfect it was that I was meeting with them on the same day that we launched our Technology section, which focuses on the intersection of technological advances and the way they impact our lives (what our Tech editor Jose Antonio Vargas calls "technology as anthropology").

The people I met at the GarageGeeks event ranged from the managing editor of the Jerusalem Post (the most successful Israeli online news source in America), to a number of passionate "GarageGeeks" giving me a tour of their latest inventions, including the Real Virtual Skater (which converted a skateboard into a game controller) and the Singing Shower (the louder you sing, the more powerful the spray -- who wouldn't want one of those?).

Outside the warehouse, where everyone gathered for my speech, it was a perfect summer night. After being introduced by GarageGeeks cofounder Gil Hirsch (the founder of face.com), I spoke about HuffPost and our use of technology and social tools. By the time I left, my pockets were stuffed with dozens of business cards of people working to push the tech envelope -- and my head was filled with plans of how this Greek may be able to work with these Geeks in the future.

Interview With the President

Tomorrow morning I'm meeting with Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, who has been a "defining figure" in Israeli politics for more than half a century, serving as Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and now President. Coming on the heels of today's tripartite meeting between Obama, Netanyahu, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, we will discuss, among other things, the state of US/Israel relations, the central issue of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, Iran's nuclear program, and the Goldstone Commission Report, the UN's fact-finding mission on Gaza.

If there is anything you'd like me to ask President Peres, please put your questions in the comments section.

 
 

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