As it ages, long-time friendship between Serbia and Israel is constantly being enriched. Along with good bilateral relations two countries are finding broader economic, artistic and tourist interests, and building subtle ties based on similar mentality.
Serbian Israeli relationship has been established a quarter a century ago, and since than carefully nourished and developed. Bilateral relations between two countries are considered excellent. However, for many years they were not accompanied by the adequate level of economic cooperation. Although the situation is still not much better, there are many positive signs that things are getting better. Along the real estate investments in which Israeli companies hold prominent place, business people are recently finding new venues for cooperation, notably in the IT sector as well as in agriculture and other fields.
There is a growing interest among Israeli tourists to visit Serbia, and vice versa and boost cultural ties between two nations.
This year will be 25 years since Israel and Serbia re-established diplomatic ties. Which events would you like to single out as the most important for boosting the relations between the two countries?
As part of marking the 25th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between our two countries as well as the Independence Day of Israel, the Embassy is undertaking various activities and events with different stakeholders throughout this year.
We started with Smart City workshop organized in cooperation with NALED wherein municipalities were able to hear how Tel Aviv branded itself as Non Stop and Smart City and share ideas on launching similar activities in their respective cities. The next project in this regard will be Women Empowerment workshop outside Belgrade.
A wide portfolio of projects to be implemented consists of donations to institutions in need together with our company Kavim in Cacak and Vranje, of support to Drug Prevention Program of the Ministry of Health, support to the Institute for Children &Youth in Sremcica and to Creative Educational Center in Belgrade and similar.
In which segments can Serbia and Israel additionally improve bilateral relations?
Our two countries share historic friendship and excellent political relations. However, there’s a gap in trade relations despite the existing awareness of potentials of both economies for cooperation. There are positive trends in bilateral trade with growth by 50% in 2016 on annual basis. Tourism sector has marked dramatic change last year with 70% growth of Israeli tourists coming to Serbia after Israeli Arkia and Israir launched charter flights last October.
Segments of joint interest and potential for enhancing economic cooperation I would stress are: innovation, agriculture, clean tech and tourism along with real estate developments which became a flagship of Israeli investments in Serbia.
How important is the cooperation between the two countries on security issues?
Security issue is crucial for all countries in the world. Due to the special geo political circumstances, Israel acquired a lot of experience, know how embodied in sophisticated technologies. We are happy to share them with friendly countries since everybody faces the same security challenges. Israel is an important player in cyber and homeland security with more than 300 active companies in the cyber market.
There has been an increased interest from business communities in both countries in further developing economic cooperation. Which economic segments have the biggest untapped potential?
I’ve noticed a huge potential of human resources in the tech area which is to be developed and transformed into the leading revenue generator. In this regard, Serbian government announced a Decade of Entrepreneurship with many activities to be implemented.
Israel based its economy on the export of know how. Due to the scarcity of natural resources, after the macroecnomic crisis we faced, in the 90’s, our government made a strategic decision of investing in R&D and making hi- tech the driving force behind our economy. As a second start up capital in the world, our Embassy already takes an active part in Serbian start up and tech community and will happily continue to support such initiatives. We would like to see more Israeli tech giants opening represenatative offices here and bringing their know how and broad network of contacts.
Beside tech sector, our companies see potential in clean tech area as Serbia just opened chapter 27 on Environment with huge investments to be completed in the following years.
There’s a growing interest of Israeli companies in waste water treatment and water management projects across the country.
Agriculture remains untapped potential. This year, for the first time, the Embassy is taking part at the International Agriculture Fair in Novi Sad with the national booth presenting Israeli agrotechnology.
Real Estate investments are in expansion with recently opened Big Fashion in Belgrade. Among the projects to be delivered this year are Rajiceva mall, layed corner stones for the Duke’s gates residential project and Big Vidikovac mall along with announced start of construction for Skyline Belgrade.
Figures in tourism have uprising trend in line with increased number of flights of both charter airlines. However, figures related to Serbian tourists visiting Israel don’t follow this trend.
As an Israeli Ambassador to Serbia, I would like for Serbs to discover Israeli cities and landscapes since it’s only three hours away. We hope local travel agencies will be able to create packages that would meet the purchasing power of the population.
Most of the intergovernmental treaties between Serbia and Israel, including the one regarding agriculture, were signed up until 2009. Do you think that the two countries should work on having closer institutional ties too?
In 2016 we finalized text of the Agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation and it is expected to be put in power in January 2018 upon ratification in both parliaments.
Beside, due to the growing number of tourists and flights, we have updated and amended Agreement on Air Transport between our two countries.
A Jewish centre called ‘Chabad Serbia’ was opened in Belgrade last year with the view of preserving the Jewish tradition and culture. How important are such facilities for nurturing the Jewish lifestyle and tradition?
The Chabad House is a gathering place for Jews and Israelis all around the world. It serves as a home for those, seeking to experience Jewish Holidays wherever they are. Only several weeks ago I took part in a huge Passover dinner organized by Chabad in Belgrade for 400 people, many of them were Israeli tourists. Yet, it is an open house also for all those who are interested in Jewish tradition and values.
The Belgrade Synagogue and its Rabbi are also of an immense religious and social importance for the Jewish community and the society in whole. As in the past, the Synagogue will be opened for the visitors during this year’s Museum Night. The guests will have a chance to learn from Rabbi Asiel about the Havdalah service and other Jewish rituals.
We should never stop learning about each other, about different cultures and religions, because that’s what brings us together.
How far along is the implementation of the idea of having a memorial centre for the Serbian Jews who perished during the Holocaust?
We follow closely, with great interest, all the developments regarding the issue of the Memorial centre at the place of the former Semlin Judenlager and try to assist in finding the right character of the site, where Jews, Serbs and Roma will have their own Memorial and at the same time, the visitors will be able to learn about the comprehensive dimension of atrocities there. That important place of the Holocaust deserves to be properly marked for the sake of future generations. I truly hope that the agreement regarding the law on Sajmiste will be reached soon and that the future memorial will become a place of remembrance and education.
You said in an interview that Serbia was much like Israel in many aspects – the pace of life, mentality and way in which people think. What similarities have you discovered in the meantime, since you have been an ambassador in Belgrade?
Recently, I have started noticing the Serbian „inat“, which would be your version of the famous Jewish „chutzpa“. When used in positive connotation this, originally Yiddish word, could be use to describe a daring person, someone who is always ready to question things, who never gives up. This subtle similarity in our characters is just one among numerous which connect us and allow us having a deep understanding between our peoples. To this, I would also add creative thinking, known as thinking „out of the box“, innovation and great sense of humour.