Israeli Ambassador to Lithuania Amir Maimon.
(photo credit: COURTESY FOREIGN MINISTRY)
VILNIUS – Business deals and trade ties are booming between Israel and Lithuania, Israel’s envoy to the country said, and few if any activists of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are active in the country.
Ambassador Amir Maimon spoke on Thursday to a small delegation of Israeli journalists touring the country’s start-up and hi-tech scene as guests of the Lithuanian Economy Ministry.
“Trade between Israel and Lithuania has been positive and has shown consistent, if not very fast, growth between the two over the last decade,” Maimon said over lunch at a posh restaurant in the capital, Vilnius, adding that Israeli tourism to the Eastern European country had increased by nearly 25% since 2016.
Bilateral trade stood at around €270 million (NIS 1.1 billion) in 2016, with around two-thirds pertaining to military hardware and cybersecurity software.
With Lithuania facing the threat of Russian aggression on its border – the country was under Soviet occupation for nearly 50 years – and as a member of the European Union and the NATO military alliance, Lithuania is a major buyer of Israeli arms. Contracts with Israeli companies such as Elbit Systems and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems were valued at €180m. (NIS 760m.) last year.
Many ordinary Lithuanians express affinity with Israel for being surrounded by enemies and forced to improvise and innovate, and the country just reconstituted mandatory military service for men in 2015.
The ambassador said: “With the Lithuania-Israel Chamber of Commerce, growing military and cybersecurity cooperation, and Lithuania’s goal to become a financial-tech and start-up hub for the region, you have all the ingredients necessary to convert the huge potential between our two nations into concrete economic actions.”
A number of Israeli hi-tech firms are opening research and development centers in the Baltic nation – for example the Tel Aviv-based Wix.com – as programmers’ salaries are much lower here.
And Israel may also soon import large quantities of kosher beef from Lithuania, as, unlike in some other European countries, there is no ban on Jewish ritual slaughter.
Maimon is the first Israeli ambassador to be based fulltime in Vilnius after Israel opened a full-time embassy in 2015. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1992, after Lithuania regained independence the previous year.
Three times a week, direct flights connect Tel Aviv and Vilnius, where there is a Jewish community of around 4,000 people. Last week, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein visited Lithuania, and a few days earlier Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius traveled to Israel.
In the diplomatic arena, Vilnius has abstained on a number of United Nations resolutions that supported the Palestinians and criticized Israel. At UNESCO, the UN’s cultural body, Lithuania opposed a motion disavowing Israel’s historical connection to Jerusalem.
One Israeli official from the Foreign Ministry, who requested anonymity due to diplomatic protocol, said that a problem obstructing greater trade between the countries is that many Israelis don’t know anything about Lithuania.
“Lithuanians think that if they’re the best, then people will come. But they spend nothing on marketing,” the official said, adding that “Israelis don’t know that they can use Lithuania as a gate to Europe.”
The Israeli official added that Lithuanians learn little about the Holocaust in primary and secondary school, while some Lithuanian resistance fighters who took part in murdering Jews continue to be memorialized in the country.
“There’s a need to include texts in the history books... which relate to the extent of the cooperation, the voluntary collaboration, between Lithuania and the Nazis. In many places in between, the killing of Jews started earlier, before the invasion.”
Some 220,000 Jews lived in the country before the Holocaust, with the overwhelming majority being killed.
Israelis with Lithuanian heritage – who include former prime ministers – may apply for citizenship and limited property compensation in the country.
And unlike much of Western Europe – where BDS activists are making gains – the anti-Israel boycott movement has no presence in the Eastern European country.
“Are you familiar with the letters N-O-N-E?” the Israeli official asked, in response to an inquiry on whether BDS activists were vocal in Lithuania.
The writer was a guest of Invest Lithuania, a nonprofit affiliated with the Lithuanian Economy Ministry.