Question: What do America's premier investor, Warren Buffett, and Iran's toxic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have in common? Answer: They've both made a bet about Israel's future.
Ahmadinejad declared on Monday that Israel "has reached its final phase and will soon be wiped out from the geographic scene."
By coincidence, I heard the Iranian leader's statement on Israel Radio just as I was leaving the headquarters of Iscar, Israel's famous precision tool company, headquartered in the Western Galilee, near the Lebanon border. Iscar is known for many things, most of all for being the first enterprise that Buffett bought overseas for his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway.
Buffett paid $4 billion for 80 percent of Iscar, and the deal just happened to close a few days before Hezbollah, a key part of Iran's holding company, attacked Israel in July 2006, triggering a monthlong war. I asked Iscar's chairman, Eitan Wertheimer, what was Buffett's reaction when he found out that he had just paid $4 billion for an Israeli company and a few days later Hezbollah rockets were landing outside its parking lot.
Buffett just brushed it off with a wave, recalled Wertheimer: "He said, 'I'm not interested in the next quarter. I'm interested in the next 20 years."' Wertheimer repaid that confidence by telling half his employees to stay home during the war and using the other half to keep the factory from not missing a day of work and setting a production record for the month. It helps when many of your "employees" are robots that move around the buildings, beeping humans out of the way.
So who would you put your money on? Buffett or Ahmadinejad? I'd short Ahmadinejad and go long on Buffett.
Why? From outside, Israel looks as if it's in turmoil, largely because the entire political leadership seems to be under investigation. But Israel is a weak state with a strong civil society. The economy is exploding from the bottom up. Israel's currency, the shekel, has appreciated nearly 30 percent against the dollar since the start of 2007.
The reason? Israel is a country that is hard-wired to compete in a flat world. It has a population drawn from 100 different countries, speaking 100 different languages, with a business culture that strongly encourages individual imagination and adaptation and where being a nonconformist is the norm. While you were sleeping, Israel has gone from oranges to software, or as they say around here, from Jaffa to Java.
The day I visited the Iscar campus, one of its theaters was filled with industrialists from the Czech Republic, who were getting a lecture in Czech from Iscar experts. The Czechs came all the way to the Israel-Lebanon border region to learn about the latest innovations in precision toolmaking. Wertheimer is famous for staying close to his customers and the latest technologies. "If you sleep on the floor," he likes to say, "you never have to worry about falling out of bed."
That kind of hunger explains why, in the first quarter of 2008, the top four economies after America in attracting venture capital for start-ups were Europe $1.53 billion, China $719 million, Israel $572 million and India $99 million, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. Israel, with 7 million people, attracted almost as much as China, with 1.3 billion.
Boaz Golany, who heads engineering at the Technion, Israel's MIT, told me: "In the last eight months, we have had delegations from IBM, General Motors, Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart visiting our campus. They are all looking to develop R&D centers in Israel."
Ahmadinejad professes not to care about such things. He was to put it in American baseball terms born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. Because oil prices have gone up to nearly $140 a barrel, he feels relaxed predicting that Israel will disappear, while Iran maintains a welfare state with more than 10 percent unemployment.
Iran has invented nothing of importance since the Islamic Revolution, which is a shame. Historically, Iranians have been a dynamic and inventive people one only need look at the richness of Persian civilization to see that. But the Islamic regime there today does not trust its people and will not empower them as individuals.
Of course, oil wealth can buy all the software and nuclear technology you want or can't develop yourself. This is not an argument that we shouldn't worry about Iran. Ahmadinejad should, though.
Iran's economic and military clout today is largely dependent on extracting oil from the ground. Israel's economic and military power today is entirely dependent on extracting intelligence from its people. Israel's economic power is endlessly renewable. Iran's is a dwindling resource based on fossil fuels made from dead dinosaurs.So who will be here in 20 years? I'm with Buffett: I'll bet on the people who bet on their people not the people who bet on dead dinosaurs.
Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist.