In the last two years, a lot has been done in creating a favourable environment for investments in start-ups, operations of VC funds and putting creative industries on the map of Serbian economic strengths and opportunities. Economic relations have been growing steadily together with the Israeli investments here and we hope to see emerging joint ventures and cooperation in the years to come
In this special edition dedicated to Israeli-Serbian overall relations, we spoke with H.E. Alona Fisher-Kamm, Israeli Ambassador, who is at the end of her mandate in Serbia. She spoke about the relations and friendship of the two countries. “I am leaving Serbia with mixed feelings. Parts of my heart and soul are staying here. What made Serbia so special for me are the people, their openness and kindness as well as their deep feeling of friendship and solidarity with Israel. Another impression is the similarity between the peoples. These conditions have facilitated my task here and served as the basis for the enhancement of the relations in all areas: politics, economy, culture, public diplomacy etc” pointed out Mrs Fisher-Kamm.
You have spent four full years in Serbia. With what impressions are you leaving our country?
Relations between Serbia and Israel have been built gradually along the years but in the last years, this progress has been accelerated. In 2018 we had the first ever visit of our President Reuven Rivlin in Serbia. President Vučić participated in the global forum that marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz death camp accompanying the visit with the yellow flag on the balcony of the President building. Serbia adopted the Law of the Memorial site in Staro Sajmište and implemented the Law on property restitution and compensation.
We celebrated together the 25th anniversary of the renewal of our diplomatic relations in 2017, with a series of political, academic and cultural activities and opened a Center for Hebrew language and civilizations at the University of Belgrade in 2019. Economic relations have been growing steadily together with the Israeli investments here. Israeli tourists found in Serbia an interesting destination. A moment of real emotion for me was the lighting of the most iconic sites of Belgrade in blue and white to celebrate the 72nd anniversary of the State of Israel. And again, what makes Serbia so special are the people.
What were the biggest challenges you faced during your diplomatic mission in Belgrade?
I have the impression that Serbia, like Israel, is a country of contradictions. It is a country that does not stop surprising you. In addition, Serbia I arrived to four years ago is different in many aspects from the one I am leaving. Maybe the EU accession process has brought not only tangible and economic changes but also psychological ones. It is very easy to fall in love with Serbia but more difficult to acquire a deep understanding of what motivates people here, what their sensitivities are and what kind of historical wounds they carry. Serbia like Israel attaches a lot of importance to its history. History is present everywhere and it would be hard to analyse and evaluate many decisions and policies taken here without taking it into consideration.
What was the hardest thing to endure during the state of emergency and how did you communicate with the community? Did Israeli companies ask for help and if they did, of what kind?
Uncertainty was probably the hardest part of the pandemic. It was hard to take any professional or personal decisions under so many question marks. Personally, the impossibility to join my family in Israel and the fact that I could not meet them for months were a real challenge. As Ambassador, I felt I was responsible for the health and well being of the employees and their families and of the Israeli community here. Many of the Israelis here are part of the business community and had to decide whether to join the families in Israel or to stay to run the business here. Some of the Israeli companies have been here in very challenging moments in the history of Serbia and yet did not leave. In spite of their present concerns regarding the potential negative consequences of COVID19, they are all continuing the development of their investments here.
The President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, participated in the annual AIPAC conference in early March. What made the strongest impression on you from that visit?
President Vučić’ speech in AIPAC is a tangible and symbolic expression of the excellent relations that prevail today between Serbia, Israel and the Jewish people. By declaring the intention of Serbia to open an official office in Jerusalem, President has joined a list of friendly countries that understand that this move does not undermine peace. On the contrary, it sends a message that time has come to recognize reality and work together to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians through direct negotiations.
The event took place only a month after the visit of President Vučić in Israel and the presentation of the yellow star flag on the balcony of the President’s residence. The speech followed the adoption of Staro sajmište law after long years of endless debates and was followed by the adoption of the international working definition of antisemitism by the Serbian Parliament and the lighting of Belgrade in blue and white to mark Israel’s 72nd anniversary. One can appreciate the speech, even more, when you look at it in this broader perspective of mutual efforts to enhance the relations.
In February this year, you opened our Innovation Talk conference, at which successful Israeli innovators spoke. What can Serbia learn from Israel and how can Israel help us in that regard?
During the last Innovation Talk conference, we had an important visit of managing partners of the Israeli Pitango Venture Capital fund. Pitango is one of the first VC funds founded in Israel and among the leading till today. One of the Managing Partners is the son of the former Israeli President Peres. Chemi Peres and his partner came to explore the market, to understand the potential and to assist the government with how to create state supported local VC funds. This visit has levelled up our existing cooperation in the area of innovation.
“Israel has created an export-oriented economy based on services and put an emphasis on human resources as the driving force”
For me, the first important thing to be learned from the Israeli experience is that a country doesn’t have to be rich or big in order to develop an efficient ecosystem for innovation. On the contrary, the best innovation and inventions come out of necessity! Israel is a medium sized country with a limited internal market and no natural resources. It lives under very special geopolitical conditions that restraint the possibility to develop economic relations with its neighbours. This is why Israel has created an export-oriented economy based on services and put an emphasis on human resources as the driving force.
DNA of Israeli entrepreneurship is specific. The military service in Israel enables young men and women to learn about various technologies. In addition, they are able to create a network during their service that is continued later in civilian life. As for the culture of taking risks, that is something we foster from childhood many would say. This is also reflected in ‘’hutzpah’’ attitude of daring to question the given facts and reality as such.
The Israeli model is well known but every country has its specifics and model should be adjusted with considerations to each country’s needs, strengths and weaknesses.
Our Embassy is an active participant and contributor to the Serbian startup ecosystem from the very beginning. As such, we are one of the benchmark countries to look upon. We collaborate closely with different stakeholders: governmental, local and private alike.
In the last two years, a lot has been done in creating a favourable environment for investments in startups, operations of VC funds and putting creative industries on the map of Serbian economic strengths and opportunities. These are the sectors wherein Israeli companies are particularly strong in and we hope to see emerging joint ventures and cooperation in the years to come.
Serbia and Israel have strong cooperation in all segments. What more can be done to boost economic and cultural cooperation, as well as the cooperation in other segments?
Embassy invests a lot of efforts in boosting economic cooperation and trade along with enhancing cultural ties. The embassy takes part in various music and dance festivals by bringing Israeli performers. We organize a film week in all the main cities in the country wherein the newest Israeli achievements are being presented. Besides, we actively cooperate with publishing houses in translating Israeli literature. Our Embassy is keen on expanding activities beyond Belgrade. In this regards, we organize Days of Israel in different cities where the local audience enjoys Israeli culture, arts and lifestyle. We intend to keep this trend and to bring Israeli culture across the country in cooperation with municipalities and other stakeholders.
One of the most important sectors of our bilateral economic cooperation in the last few years is tourism! Since 2016, after launching low cost flights to Belgrade by the 2 Israeli air- carriers, we marked a dramatic growth in numbers of Israeli tourists in Serbia. In this regards 2018 was a record year with more than 40 000 Israelis that visited Serbia. We hope this trend will remain and expand to other beautiful sites and regions of the country.
On the commercial side, the level of trade has a steady growth by 15% on annual basis, despite of non-existing free trade agreement. One of the challenges for boosting the economic cooperation lies in the lack of awareness on opportunities from both sides together with compatibility and structure of the two economies.
“Recently, we have signed a Protocol on cooperation between Mashav-Israeli Agency for International Cooperation and Development and the Serbian Ministry of Agriculture”
In addition, we have to strengthen the legal framework to enable businesses to work together much easier. Among achievements in this area, we had an Agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation, which came into power at the beginning of this year. In addition, in the area of agriculture, recently we have signed a Protocol on cooperation between Mashav – Israeli Agency for International Cooperation and Development and the Serbian Ministry of Agriculture.
We have a vivid cooperation in agriculture, which evolves over the years. Our embassy took part at Novi Sad Agriculture fair during the last 3 years with a national booth presenting Israeli technologies through their local companies. Serbia had a national booth at Israfood fair last November presenting its rich processed and fresh fruits and vegetables portfolio.
Economic areas, which hold a special focus for us, besides agriculture, are IT, water treatment and water management as well as renewables. Last year, we inaugurated one of the biggest wind farms in the country, Kovačica. Israeli Enlight Energy is one of the investment partners.
The embassy will keep on investing efforts in engaging businesses from both countries in the mentioned areas, through bilateral conferences, forums, mentoring programs and similar activities.
“Solidarity and feeling of common destiny is an important layer in the relations between Serbia and Israel”
Our countries are bound by a common past and are strongly opposing the current trends of revisionism, especially bearing in mind the sacrifices that the Serbian and Israeli people had to bear throughout history. How bilateral relations can be further improved in this matter?
This solidarity and feeling of common destiny is an important layer in the relations between Serbia and Israel. Of course, it is not enough but it serves as a solid ground for deepening the friendship. The long years Jewish presence here has created connections and figures. David Albala, Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai or Theodor Herzl who played an important role in our history, are all originated from Serbia. The International Day of Holocaust Remembrance is marked here in different ways and institutions and the message of Never Again is relevant for everybody. Antisemitism is like litmus paper of the society. It reflects its own weaknesses and undermines its own democratic values. During my mandate here, I witnessed so many activities to remember the Holocaust on the one hand and to fight antisemitism on the other hand. Unfortunately, this is not the situation in many other countries where antisemitism is raising its head again, together with historical revisionism and relativism and Holocaust denial.
“I hope I could give Serbia as much love, kindness and generosity as I got here during these beautiful years”
What memories from Serbia are you going to carry with you? Do you promise to come back since you will always be a very dear guest at our events?
I’m flattered. Such statements almost make me cry as it is hard for me to leave Serbia and to leave behind so many friends and colleagues. I hope I could give Serbia as much love, kindness and generosity as I got here during these beautiful years. As we say, Home is where your heart is. No doubt, I will be happy to come back to this place that became my second home.