A Foreign Ministry initiative that calls for the intensification of involvement at the ambassadorial level in promoting the endeavors of Israeli business enterprises to gain a market foothold abroad, may lead to billions of dollars in increased exports.
The initiative, which was officially launched Sunday in Tel Aviv, is the brainchild of Ilan Maor, the director of the Foreign Ministry's Economic Department.
"It's obvious that an embassy must give all possible assistance to Israeli businesspeople," he said. Not that embassies haven't provided assistance in the past, but in former years such duties were the province of commercial attaches or consuls-general.
However, based on developments in the past half-decade, the Foreign Ministry, working in conjunction with the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute, reached the conclusion that an ambassador by virtue of his or her status, can open more doors for a potential Israeli exporter than can a diplomat of lower rank.
Sunday's launch under the rubric of "Ambassadors in the service of exporters and business in Israel" facilitated a total of 600 meetings between some 30 ambassadors-designate plus seconds in command of mission with members of Israel's business community on a one-on-one basis.
The ambassadors are due to take up their new posts during the coming summer months.
Maor who was Israel's envoy in Shanghai, the epicenter of China's economy, from 2001-2005 told The Jerusalem Post that during his tour of duty he dealt with hundreds of Israeli firms, many of which had entered into successful and profitable transactions in China.
Business has become such an important aspect of a diplomat's work, said Maor, that cadets embarking on a course in diplomacy now have three-and-a-half weeks of in-depth study of Israeli industry, which includes familiarization with the areas in which Israel excels; a concept of business practice; and visits to factory plants where they are given tours and on-site lectures on a specific industry in general and the company within that industry, in particular.
Similar courses have also been organized for veteran diplomats said Maor.
Sunday's meetings, which were preceded by a series of addresses and a panel discussion, constituted the first mass meeting between Israeli diplomats and representatives of the business community.
Foreign Ministry Director-General Aharon Abramovitch emphasized the importance of the link between the Foreign Ministry and Israeli industry, and noted that the ministry was devoting a lot of time and energy towards developing industrial contacts abroad. He also noted the importance of getting in on the ground floor with developing countries, which can use Israeli know-how in the building up of their infrastructure. This is a significant factor in relation to Israel's eligibility for OECD membership, he said.
Israel Export Industry Director-General Yechiel Assia observed that the involvement of ambassadors in advancing business interests is greater than it ever was before - and not just from an Israeli standpoint. A recent hi-tech tour organized by the Export Institute in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry generated so enthusiastic a response that they were able to fill two buses with foreign diplomats.
Israel has an excellent network of commercial attaches, said Assia, but not every Israeli mission abroad has a commercial attach , and even those that do need to have the work of the commercial attach augmented by the influence of the ambassador whose status and personal connections can pave the way to new business opportunities.
Meanwhile, Yossi Gal, the ministry's deputy director-general for political affairs indicated that nowadays there are hardly any high-level meetings in Israel between government representatives from abroad and Israeli officials in which economic issues are not raised. He has also found this to be true when he travels abroad.
"There is less interest in regional political issues than in Israel's economy and hi-tech achievements," said Gal, who noted that he was returning to Jerusalem to meet with an EU delegation and expected that the meeting would focus less on diplomacy and more on economics.
Former Foreign Ministry director-general Ron Prossor, who is Israel's ambassador-designate to the Court of St. James, said ambassadors must become ministerial and parliamentary lobbyists, particularly with regard to water and energy issues where Israel's experience and expertise can be of vital use worldwide.
Prossor also noted the need for business people to be properly informed about who can do what for them. He cited as an example the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which has an Israeli representative sitting in London who can be instrumental in organizing business contacts all over Europe.
Prossor suggested that Israeli diplomats look at their American counterparts and learn to be "just as aggressive"
Ron Tuttenauer, whose family has been operating a Jerusalem-based plant specializing in medical devices for 72 years, asked ambassadors to keep their eyes open for billboard signs in their overseas postings. When a sign announces that a hospital or a university is to be built on a vacant allotment in a certain time frame, this could be good news for Israelis whose various enterprises make them eligible for a piece of the construction pie, he said. Such information should be relayed to the Foreign Ministry or the Export Institute as quickly as possible. Similarly, there could be valuable information in small newspaper advertisements, he added.
Booky Oren, the former director-general of the Mekorot Water Carrier and now President and CEO of the Arison Group's water projects, declared that within the next decade water technology would be Israel's number two export after defense and security equipment.
Israel's defense industries are well known around the globe he said, but fewer people know that it has the capability to solve most of the world's water problems.
"All over the world people need more water. The demand is increasing all the time. We have the technology to meet that demand. It's just a matter of money.".
Dan Wilenski, who persuades American companies to set up offices and production plants in Israel, said it was imperative for Israeli ambassadors to learn no only about Israeli industry, but also about the main industries of the countries to which they were being posted so they could sound authoritative when talking business. Business people should notify an ambassador before they arrive in the country in which he is serving, said Wilenski. This gives him time to arrange a breakfast meeting with suitable people. Breakfast meetings in which there is straight talk about business are more effective than any form of incentive, he opined.
Some diplomats, meanwhile, were taken to task by Anat Levy-Roshanski of Golan Wineries who was appalled by those ambassadors who see fit to serve foreign wines at diplomatic events instead of Israeli wines.
"Wine is part of our culture and our history," she said. "You can do great PR for Israel through wine, because we've been producing wine since Biblical times and you can introduce Israel's history into any discussion on Israeli wines."