Naftali Bennett: Israel’s pivot to Asia
Dec 18, 2013 | Ahron Shapiro
Go East. That’s the catchphrase Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Economics and Commerce Minister has chosen for his new initiative to shift Israel’s strategic and trade focus away from its traditional Western European orientation and towards Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Oceania.
At a press briefing in Melbourne on December 6, Bennett – a former high-tech CEO and current leader of Habayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), the Knesset’s fourth largest faction – talked about his vision for preparing Israel’s economic engine for the future. He revealed five spheres of industry where he believes Israel should be using its talents to be a force of good in the world. Finally, he discussed the message he delivered to newly-elected Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott about the interim Geneva deal on Iran’s nuclear program.
Looking to Asia
“I’m pushing a big drive to go East. I call it ‘Go East’ – that’s the code name for it. We need to diversify Israel’s trade, go to the fastest growing markets, China and India. China was my first visit, India was my second and only then did I fly to the States. My fourth tour abroad has been to Indonesia and Australia – and deliberately so. I have about 40 trade offices around the world, and I’m diverting offices from Western Europe to the East. So, I closed one in Sweden and moved it to Hong Kong. I’ve closed one in Finland and moved it to China. I’m moving eastward. That’s where I view the future. You know, we continue to trade with Europe and elsewhere, but we need to diversify.
[In addition,] in many parts of Asia there is an appreciation of Israel, especially the start-up and innovation aspect of Israel which has grown very strongly over the past 20 years.”
Trip to the World Trade Organisation forum in Bali
“I must have met about 25 ministers of trade or commerce, of which some were from some very surprising locations. While I can’t elaborate on [who I talked with], I’ll tell you what I’ve seen. I’ve seen more and more drive towards economy-based diplomacy. Meaning, they say, for example, we can agree to disagree on some big things, but I have to tell you, what I really need right now is much higher dairy production in my country… And they know Israel is very good at squeezing the most milk out of every cow, so to speak.”
Israel – a “Lighthouse Nation”
“Israel has been called a start-up nation, and we really are. But my thrust is to convert it from a start-up nation to a lighthouse nation. What is a lighthouse? It has a strong foundation that can weather any storm that surrounds it, but it also shines its light for the benefit of others. We need to focus on technologies where we can do good around the world. I see at least five areas where we can do this: Agriculture and food, alternative energy, cyber-security, and medical devices. And we’re doing it. In India, for example, we currently operate a dozen model farms. We train tens of thousands of farmers and using our methodologies and technologies, in one farm near Delhi we managed to increase their yield tenfold.”
Expanding the Israeli workforce
“The Israeli workforce is almost at full employment right now. We’ve exhausted all of our talent from the current pool of workers. We’ve been working on two reforms [to expand the pool]. One is getting the ultra-religious, the Charedim, integrated into society… The second reform, which is my personal baby, is getting Arab women into the workforce. Arab women have the lowest participation rate in Israel. Only 27% of Arab women work. I want to get it up to 60%. I’ve been investing hundreds of millions of shekels… towards achieving this goal.”
“I met the Prime Minister this morning and I came away with a very positive feeling. He is such a friend. And I don’t see [Prime Minister Tony Abbott acting simply] out of self-interest. I see [his attitude reflecting the] feeling that he has to speak up for the right thing. And I’m very impressed about that, about the common sense and fairness that Australia has shown… There’s a lot in common between Australia and Israel.
In my business life, I did some business here and I have to say it was the most pleasant place I’ve ever interacted with… The people were very direct, very honest, very frank, they get to the point and are simply nice [to do business with].”
Message to Australian leaders about Iran
“Iran has 18,500 centrifuges, of which a thousand are the advanced kind called IR-2 which are 5 [times as efficient]. So effectively they have 23,000. You need 3,000 centrifuges spinning for a year to produce enough high-grade uranium for one bomb. So, they can produce enough uranium for one bomb every six weeks. It’s like a machine.
“Imagine a pipe which pours 20 percent enriched uranium into a pool. They’ve made it their business not to fill the pool beyond the 180 kilogram-line, the red line that [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu set about a year and a half ago. Every time they reach that line, they drain the pool. That’s been the case for the past year or so. Their plan is not to break out and get a bomb today. Their plan is to break out and get a bomb tomorrow… [to wait] for a moment where everyone’s distracted with some crisis that inevitably comes and then break out within six weeks, announce the bomb, done deal, North Korea style.
“The deal that’s been achieved, all it did was click the pause button on the pipe, which was already paused anyway. And it drained the pool, but [it only] takes about three weeks or four weeks [to refill it]. So that’s all we gained… So they keep the pipe yet the sanctions have been dramatically eased. Still there are other sanctions that are applied, but the international business community has been sent a signal, come and do business with Teheran. And that’s the biggest problem.
“We wanted to achieve a position where they either retain their program or they can maintain their regime’s survival. They can’t have them both. This deal affords them a third way – to wriggle out of the sanctions while keeping the machine.
“However, we’re not done yet. [The interim deal is for] six months, and Israel’s aim is to try and get the West to define clearly its objective for those six months. And the objective should be to dismantle the machine.”