After five years serving in Serbia, the current Israeli ambassador is heading back to Tel Aviv, leaving bilateral and investment relations between the two countries in better shape than ever, and with the only regret that the potential for trade relations is still not fully realised
Israeli Ambassador Yossef Levy is soon to leave a Serbia that is a very different place to the one he encountered when he first arrived here in 1999, when the stench of war could still be felt in the air. Thanks to profound changes in the country, Serbia is a state with which Israel has excellent bilateral relations and a place in which Israeli companies have invested about two billion dollars in real estate projects. “I am happy and proud that I played a modest part in rapidly advancing cooperation with Serbia in so many fields,” says the ambassador. In this interview he speaks about the global threats that affect both countries, about bilateral and trade relations and their potential, as well as sharing his personal feelings about his time in Serbia.
What is your assessment of the current situation in relation to the migrant crisis and the situation in the Middle East, and what do you expect in the period ahead?
– The migrant crisis is not only a political and democratic earthquake in Europe, but also a moral and practical test for many European nations. Israel is not in a position to preach morality to any country or to comment on what is right and what is wrong, but two things are clear: the Arab world has totally failed to protect the physical lives of its entire people. In spite of their wealth and power, there is a mass exodus from the Middle East towards the safe haven of Europe. The extremism came from within the Arab world and destroyed the political structure of at least two important states: Iraq and Syria. The tragedy in the Middle East is self-made. Serbia has proven itself to be a careful, stable and just-country, which impressed the whole of the EU with its generous hospitality. I salute the Serbian government for its impressive stand, which I think is welcomed by many countries.
We often hear that gatherings of rightist movements in Europe resemble a new awakening of fascism. Is that too strong a diagnosis, or does this really represent serious cause for concern?
– Some believe, like UK newspaper The Guardian, for example, that Europe is losing its central parties and governments are dependent on extreme right wing forces. A year ago it was the “economic and Eurozone crisis” that was at the top of the European agenda, namely internal European developments. Today it is immigration challenge and Islamic terror. According to some surveys, extremist parties enjoyed support up to 30 per cent in the first five years after the economic crisis.I would be personally very cautious in using the word “fascism”, but there is certainly a deterioration of democratic values in some European societies. As Jews, we are seven times more alert, because extremism unleashes intent hatred towards minorities, including Jews. In one rich Scandinavian country Jews are simply afraid to walk with a “kippah” on their heads or to expose other Jewish symbols. This represents the total bankruptcy of democratic values of freedom and pluralism.
How much does this situation further complicate the political, security and economic situation in Israel?
– Israel is more than ever before an island of stability in the chaotic Middle East. Of course, we are worried when just one kilometre from our borders is Hezbollah, Assad soldiers, Iranian agents and ISIS terrorists are ‘’exchanging punches with each other’’. We are stuck in the most dangerous human volcano.Over a year has passed since Prime Min-ister Vučić visited Israel. What kind of impact has that visit since had on the development of bilateral relations between the two countries?
– Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić had a wonderful and friendly encounter with our officials. PM Netanyahu expressed great admiration for Vučić’s European perspective and the dialogue with Pristina, which can be a model for other conflicts, including ours. We are 1,000 light years away regarding regional stability, compared with the Balkans. A couple of days ago I had the pleasure of submitting to PM Vučić a thank you letter from Prime Minister Netanyahu regarding topics of “restitution and Holocaust victims”. The Government and Parliament of Serbia deserve special recognition for their courage and cordial solidarity with the Jewish people throughout history. The Serbian example will serve as a model to other European capitals of how good people should behave.
Considering your extensive knowledge of Serbia and vast diplomatic experience, how would you assess the progress Serbia has made since the early 2000s, when you first arrived in Belgrade as a diplomat?
– All good things come to an end. Soon I will go back to Israel after five amazing years in Belgrade, a city I love very much. Let me tell you honestly that I feel like I am at home here. I may sit on an airplane and go back to Tel Aviv, but I will never leave Serbia as a concept. Serbia has become part of me. I am glad and proud that I played a modest part in a rapidly advancing Serbian cooperation in so many fields. Almost every week I am invited to cut a ribbon on new Israeli projects, such as the Aviv Arlon Parks, Central Garden, Belgrade Plaza, Zemun Park, a beautiful project in Rajićeva still under construction and many other projects in Serbia, as the list is too long to mention them. In August 1999, when I first arrived in Belgrade, the stench of war could still be felt. Europe was around, but didn’t knock on the door. Today much has changed. Look what dramatic change you went through in the last 17 years. You are certain candidates for Brussels and you are in a good place on the map.
Can we now say with more optimism that economic cooperation between Serbia and Israel has progressed from formerly modest figures?
– Partially, yes. I am very pleased with the dramatic growth in Israeli investments, especially in real estate. On the other hand, I am disappointed with the stagnation of our bilateral trade. While investments are over two billion dollars since 2000, commerce is still not good enough. The right formula to match between Serbian production and ours has not yet been found. You can take this as a joke, but I always think about the amazing Serbian “Ajvar” as a product that could easily be distributed in every Israeli kitchen. They would love it. Whenever I visit Israel I bring back with me fantastic Israeli dates and give them to my friends. You will not find such dates in local supermarkets.
Apart from the real estate sector, which other areas attract the most Israeli companies?
– Serbia is blessed with extraordinary people: engineers, IT experts, craftsmen etc. Most of them are unfortunately earning very little. That gap between very high standards and very low salaries is always a magnet for businessmen who know how to make money.
Due to the increasing interest of Israeli companies, you recently began publishing a small economic bulletin. How popular is it today as required reading, and which information most interests subscribers?
– I assume that you are talking about “Iz–I–biz” which is an Israeli-Serbian business magazine that we produce. We decided to renew it just after the economic crisis. Every time we publish the magazine we get more and more requests to be included in the next issue, which reflects the positive results of which we are happy and proud. Probably the most popular part of the magazine is the section that shows business opportunities and public tenders in Serbia.
Are you satisfied with the pace of activities for the final arrangement of the Memorial Complex at the Old Belgrade Fairground?
– After years of waiting there is finally an action at the “Staro sajmište” site. The committee headed by Bishop Jovan Ćulibrk enjoys the full support of the government and the city. Devoted officials like Mayor Siniša Mali, city architect Milutin Folić, Vladimir Božović and others are cooperating with the Jewish community and with us to turn “Staro sajmište” into a commemoration site for the victims of the Holocaust.
Do you have enough time to devote to writing books and how many works have you written?
– Well, when I came here I didn’t think I would have such little time…Belgrade is a capsule of energy that swallows you in. I started to write two texts here in Belgrade. I write late at night, just after the kids go to sleep. The first text is a chronical of my Afghan family, a story I want to tell to my son when he grows up. The second text is a wild and funny story which happens here in Belgrade. I hope I will have enough courage to publish it one day. Some of the heroes from my text will probably blush when they read it.