Editor's Notes: Trading places Israel style

It’s hard to imagine that Israeli exports 66 years ago were Oranges, kerosene burners and artificial teeth. Today, Israel is known for its impressive hi-tech industry.

By
July 7, 2016 21:47
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with seven east African leaders

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with seven east African leaders. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

 
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In 1950, Israel sent its first commercial delegation to Argentina. It was two years after the War of Independence and the Arab boycott was in full force. Trade in the region was impossible and Israel desperately needed a business partner.

The delegation, consisting of officials from the Foreign and Trade ministries, was met in Buenos Aires by Yitzhak Navon, then one of the handful of Israeli diplomats stationed in South America and later to become the country’s fifth president. After weeks of diplomatic back-channeling, Navon succeeded in arranging a meeting for the delegation with Juan Peron, who was then in his first term as president of Argentina.

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On the day of the meeting, the delegation showed up at the presidential palace. Peron was joined by his famous wife, Eva, who a year earlier had sent children’s clothes to Israel through the Eva Peron Foundation.

“What can we do to increase trade with you,” Peron asked Navon and the delegation. “What can we buy?”

“Oranges,” the Israelis replied.

“We have oranges...” Peron started to say, until his wife interrupted him and according to some elbowed his side.

“Okay, we will buy the oranges,” the president said. “What else do you have?”

“Primus stoves,” the Israelis said, a reference to the pressurized kerosene burners one Israeli company was manufacturing at the time.

Peron chuckled and started explaining that Argentina was already connected to the electrical grid when he got another elbow from his wife. “We’ll buy that too,” he said. “What else?”

“Artificial teeth,” the Israelis said. This was already too much and everyone in the room broke out laughing.

It’s hard to imagine this is what Israeli exports looked like a mere 66 years ago. Today, Israel is known for its impressive hi-tech industry, reaching already in the first half of 2016 $3.3 billion in exits. While this is slightly lower than exits from the same period last year, market analysts see the drop as the result of a newfound interest among Israeli tech companies to focus on growth and not quick payouts.

While the exits might be slightly down, investments are up, with hi-tech companies raising a whopping $1.4b. in the second quarter of 2016, including a $300 million investment by Volkswagen in Israeli company Gett.

This week, Israel’s economic prowess featured prominently during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic tour of Africa, which included stops in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. All of them seek increased cooperation with Israel, not because of its diplomatic standing – which has actually taken several hits in recent days – but due to the technology the country has to offer.

The increasing threat of Islamic terrorism throughout the world, including in Africa, has these countries also interested in Israeli intelligence, military expertise and weaponry.

While some Israeli daily papers focused on the cost of Netanyahu’s trip – initial reports claimed it came with an NIS 28 million price tag – this was done as a disservice to their readers.

There is room for legitimate criticism of the prime minister and his policies, but the media’s hang-up with the price of Netanyahu’s trips overseas is unparalleled in other Western countries. Netanyahu is a respected statesman and a talented orator. Even his greatest detractors agree with that. When he travels overseas, he represents all of Israel’s 8 million citizens. Do Israelis really not want him to have sufficient security in Africa? Do they not want him to travel comfortably? The problem is that this obsession with the cost of the trip prevented news consumers from seeing its true importance.

Netanyahu was the first prime minister to travel to Africa in 20 years at a time when the continent’s GDP is expected to grow by 4 percent. While this doesn’t sound like a lot, it is far higher than the small growth expected among Israel’s traditional trading partners in Europe.

The trip to Africa is part of a grand Israeli strategy to diversify the country’s economic trade. Over the last few years, Israel’s focus has shifted away from Europe and the United States and is now focused on the Far East and places like China and South Korea, with which the country is in talks to sign free trade agreements. Similar negotiations are ongoing with Russia and Netanyahu is planning a trip before the end of the year to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, Israel’s biggest oil exporters and growing economic powers.

When Naftali Bennett, for example, was minister of economy between 2013 and 2015, he made two trips to China, one to India and another to Indonesia and Australia in the span of a year-and-a-half. In total, he visited the Far East more times than Europe. Bilateral trade with China, for example, is already at about $10b., an impressive amount considering it was just $50m. when the countries officially established diplomatic relations in 1992. With the completion of the FTA , that number is expected to significantly increase.

These countries are looking to Israel for assistance in five fields – agriculture, water, life sciences, cyber and medical devices.


The need to diversify Israel’s trade is the result of two trends – one diplomatic and the other demographic – Israel has identified in Europe, until now its biggest trade partner. It is no secret that Israel and the European Union do not see eye-to-eye on the continued conflict with the Palestinians. With product labeling already in place and more sanctions potentially to come, Israel needs to be careful it does not put all its eggs in the European basket.

The demographic changes sweeping the continent are just another reason to begin looking elsewhere.

But there is another piece of the trade puzzle that has to be mentioned. Countries like China, India, Ethiopia and Azerbaijan don’t care about a home being built in Ma’aleh Adumim or new housing units in Gilo. You won’t hear criticism from Beijing about an Israeli raid on a southern Hebron village or a condemnation from Astana after a new B’Tselem report on settlement expansion. These countries want to simply do business.

***

I first met Elie Wiesel about 15 years ago around my in-laws’ Shavuot dinner table. As the years went by, I got to know this amazing giant, a man of immeasurable wisdom, vision and conscience.

Three years ago, he invited me for a meeting before one of the three annual lectures he was supposed to give that evening at Boston University. It was the first after a long break, during which he had been recuperating from open-heart surgery, an experience that would later become the topic for another one of his dozens of thought-provoking books.

We met in Wiesel’s spacious office on the BU campus and chatted about the future of journalism – Wiesel worked as a reporter for a number of years after the war – the art of storytelling and of course Israeli politics. I mostly listened. Wiesel was an amazing storyteller.

I shared with him how a few months earlier our first son was born and we decided to also name him “Eli” – short for Eliezer – after my great-grandfather Eliezer Welgrin who was born in 1902 in Sosnewic, a small Polish town not far from Krakow. Before the war, 30,000 of Sosnewi’s 130,000 residents were Jewish. Elie Wiesel’s first name was also short for Eliezer.

My great-grandfather Eliezer became a leather merchant and made a decent living providing for his wife and two children, Henry and Rene, my late grandmother. In 1943 though, Eliezer was deported and murdered in Buchenwald, the same concentration camp where Wiesel lost his father and was eventually liberated in April 1945.

Wiesel smiled. Our lives, he explained, were cycles that started with our ancestors and continued through our descendants. As our sages told us, he said, we need to remember our roots and history so we can know where we need to go.

Elie Wiesel told the world a story it did not want to hear.

He shined a light on a horrific and painful past so we could learn how to prevent such atrocities from happening again.

He may no longer be with us, but Elie Wiesel’s legacy lives on as a reminder of a tragic past but at the same time, as a beacon of hope that humanity can always strive to be better.

***

This week, The Jerusalem Post joined Snapchat. For those of you who don’t know, Snapchat is one of the hottest image messaging mobile apps today and reportedly has 150 million daily users, making it bigger than Twitter.

Like many news organizations, the Post is learning how to use Snapchat on the fly. On Tuesday, one of our reporters snapped – yes, that is the term – from a rally calling on the government to recognize the Armenian Genocide. On Wednesday, Lahav Harkov snapped from the Knesset gallery as MKs fought below over newly proposed legislation to remove incitement from Facebook.

While tweets on Twitter are limited to 140 characters, on Snapchat, videos are limited to 10 seconds. Snaps then disappear after 24 hours. No links are allowed so a user cannot easily move from Snapchat to a website.

Nevertheless, it is an important tool, one that we plan to use at the Post to reach a younger demographic, to take our storytelling to a new level and to provide you – our readers – with an insider’s view of Israel beyond the daily and hyper news cycle.

So, if you haven’t joined yet, download Snapchat. You’ll find us under the username TheJpost.

Shabbat Shalom.

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