Antwerp, often referred to as the last shtetl in Europe, is seeking ways of cooperation with the Port of Haifa, as well as a strengthening of relations with the local diamond industry, in an effort to help restore the image of the Belgian city as a competitive commercial center of the world and a supporter of Israel.
"We are seeking some ways of cooperation with the Haifa port," Baron Leo Delwaide, president of the Antwerp Port Authority and alderman of the city of Antwerp told The Jerusalem Post during his first visit official visit to Israel this week. "Port productivity here is not something to write home about and in particular per container crane activity is very low in Israel."
The Port of Antwerp is one of the largest ports in the world after Rotterdam and Hamburg and Delwaide is hoping to advise local ports on how they can improve.
During his visit, Delwaide met up with the presidents of the ports of Haifa and Ashdod, the Mayor of Haifa and the president of the Israel Diamond Exchange.
"The Port of Antwerp has a very productive labor force and we see possibilities of helping to make production of the ports in Israel more efficient by better labor training, which we can provide through the special tailor-made training programs we have", said Delwaide. "Our meetings with the ports have already become concrete. At the end of this month, I will be sending our general manager to speak at a symposium at the Ashdod port about Antwerp's management and worker training."
The image of Belgium's "second city" with the country's largest Orthodox Jewish community, has been dented by global competition - whether in port activity or in the diamond industry.
"I believe in competition. It is a good thing," said Delwaide. "It gives us an incentive to fight more and find ways to cooperate with other countries."
Meanwhile, according to the Forum of Jewish Organizations (a Jewish umbrella group based in Antwerp) the Jewish community witnesses anti-Semitism and racist violence, which makes the community feel unsafe.
"Until very recently during local elections in Belgium, there was much fear that the extreme right would take over," said Delwaide.
In this month's local elections, Flemish far-right, antiimmigrant party Vlaams Belang polled strongly in Belgian local elections but failed in its main aim to seize control of the northern port city of Antwerp.
"I am relieved to say that we managed to keep the city out of the hands of the far right," Delwaide said. The Flemish Socialist party captured 22 seats compared with 20 for the extremeright Flemish anti-Islam Interest party, on the 55-seat council in Antwerp.
"In order to uphold and improve our relations with Israel, which is very important to us, we have to from time-totime overcome some prejudices which still exist in Belgium about Israel, in particular about the Israel-Palestinian conflict," he said. "Some people tend to forget what it is all about here - namely fighting for Israel's existence."
Antwerp, a city of 450,000 is located about 30 miles north of the capital, Brussels.
Most of its Jews are involved in the diamond industry and have made Antwerp the world's largest diamond trading center. It is estimated that 80 percent of all rough diamonds in the world are traded in Antwerp, and that as much as half of the trading in cut and polished diamonds also occurs there.
But Antwerp has been in danger of losing its crown to Dubai as the global center of the diamond market with Dubai considered to have an edge over Antwerp in terms of its tax-free status.
"We expect our market share in polished diamonds to decrease from 50% to 40%, but we are not talking about an existential problem," said Delwaide. "Besides we should not be afraid of other centers in the world coming up like Dubai."
Belgium, in fact, has, in recent months, been gearing up to try and restore Antwerp's position as the world diamond center by introducing tax incentives for diamantaires. The High Diamond Council, the governing body representing Antwerp's diamond sector, back in March explored a number of regulations enabling the diamond sector to better arm itself against the growing competition from Dubai and ease trade hampering conditions, to which the Belgium government committed itself.
"The restructuring of the Diamond High Council is a good step and was applauded by the diamond community in Antwerp and improved one of the less attractive things Antwerp has to offer," Delwaide said. "Today, in both sectors - diamonds and the ports - the sky is about the limit. Just look at the port business and the increase of international trade to be expected for which we need to be prepared."
His hope is that after this visit the "already excellent" relations between Antwerp and Israel, will get even better - especially in the ports and diamonds sectors.
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