homepage_name! > Editions > Number 091-092 > Ambassador - Israel

H.E. Mrs. Alona Fisher Kamm, Ambassador of Israel to Serbia

Israel

The total area of the State of Israel is 8,630 sq. miles (22,145 sq.km.) with a population of around 8 million people. The country is bordered by Lebanon to the north, Syria to the northeast, Jordan to the east, Egypt to the southwest, and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Mountains and plains, fertile land, and desert are often minutes apart. Jewish history began about 4,000 years ago (c. 17th century BC) with the patriarchs - Abraham, his son Isaac, and grandson Jacob. Some 200 museums around the country are attended by millions of visitors annually. Large or small, in city, town, or kibbutz, they are treasure houses of archaeology, ethnography, and local history of art, both ancient and modern, and of crafts, from the primitive to the sophisticated. In late 2008, as some of the world’s financial giants began to stumble and markets around the world seemed on the verge of collapse, Israel showed that its economic strength lies not only in its capability for expansion during boom years, but in its resilience during times of economic contraction. The Israeli economy proved to be highly resistant to external, geopolitical influences. One of the main contributors is the diversification of Israeli trading partners and increased share of Asian countries in trade over the last few years. Also, the structure of Israeli exports, which is dominated by high tech products, adds to this.

e were much honored to talk to Her Excellency Mrs. Alona Fisher Kamm, Ambassador of Israel to Serbia.

1.What was the course of your career in diplomacy before you came to Serbia?

I'm a career diplomat with more than 25 years of experience. My first post was in Buenos Aires in the Culture, Media and Public Diplomacy Department. Later, I was media adviser and spokesperson at the Embassy of Israel in Paris, as well as Deputy Chief of Mission in Madrid.

From 2013 to 2016, I oversaw the Training Bureau at the Ministry in Jerusalem preparing young Israeli diplomats for their future missions abroad.

This post was very dear to me since it touched on the important issue of educating the future generation of diplomats and providing them with a set of skills that will enable them to meet new challenges worldwide.

After a long career in EU countries, both professional and academic, it was important to me to discover the Balkan region, taking into consideration the similarities between the people, societies and the special historic relations we share. The prospects for the region fascinate me and of course, Belgrade was my choice, since Serbia holds a crucial role in the stability of the region.

2. What is the nature of the foreign trade cooperation between our countries and which industries in Serbia have the most potential? What does Serbia export to Israel, and what does it import from Israel?

Our bilateral trade has remained stable over the years, around 50 million USD annually, which is far below the actual potential. It is important to mention that this figure doesn’t include services, security items and diamonds. Per last year’s statistics, the most imported items from Israel were herbicides, fungicides and automatic data processing devices, while among the most exported from Serbia were parts for turbo jets, articles made from nickel and pet food The latest trends in bilateral trade are positive; we have seen growth on both sides: for the period January August 2016 compared to the same period last year, Israeli exports to Serbia grew 56%, while Serbian exports to Israel grew 33%. It is our aim to see an upward trend in these figures at a much faster pace and amount and we intend to focus our future economic activities on achieving that.

3. How do you see Serbia’s EU integration in the future, and do you think that upon joining the EU, Serbia will become more appealing to investors, not just from Israel, but from other countries as well?

I wouldn’t say that by just joining the EU, the country becomes more appealing to investors. What matters are reforms and compliance with international standards of doing business, so the path to be crossed on the way to full integration into the EU is what upgrades the candidate country’s investment perspective. A stable political, legal and macroeconomic environment with an efficient judiciary is what all investors are looking for, aside from strict economic benefits. On the other hand, Israel has a free trade agreement with the EU which will become applicable here once Serbia becomes a member of the Union, which we hope will positively influence trade.

4. When it comes to investments, how do investors from Israel see the Serbian market? What are the most important companies that have made investments here? And what are the impressions of the Israeli companies working in Serbia?

The main Israeli real estate investors came, following the democratic changes in 2000. The level of overall investments has reached around 1 billion EUR over the years and is mainly focused on the real estate sector, which made us the top investor in the very area in Serbia.

I'm sure names such as: Africa Israel, Aviv Arlon, Big Cee, the Mivne group, Ashtrom International, the Plaza group etc., are well known to the Serbian public as leading real estate investors with a proven track record. In addition, we have a few investments in manufacturing such as the Strauss Adriatic acquisition of Doncafe and the Foundry of Precise Castings – LPO Ada is under the ownership of Bet Shemesh Engines. Our company, Kavim, became a leader in transportation by purchasing 4 bus companies in central Serbia during privatization. These companies now operate under the Kavim Serbia Group.

Israeli investors find Serbia very appealing for several reasons: being a friendly country with a similar mentality and temperament, a highly skilled labor force, just 3 hours away with good airline connections among other things. Of course, as previously mentioned, not only to Israeli but to all investors, the issues of cutting red tape, creating and maintaining a stable legal and macroeconomic environment with an efficient judiciary are highly ranked when considering investments to Serbia, or elsewhere.

5. Serbia boasts an outstanding location in the center of Europe, numerous natural resources, and extraordinary human resources. What does Serbia lack to resurrect its economy?

I come from a country which based its economy on the export of know how. Due to very specific geopolitical surroundings and a scarcity of natural resources, following the macroeconomic 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. It is a matter of national priority and despite internal political changes, our level of investment in R&D remains stable. The rest is history, with Israel being recognized as the ''start up nation'' all over the globe.

Serbia enjoys a favorable location which has resulted in many free trade agreements being concluded and those upcoming such as with the Euro-Asian Economic Block which stimulates export and reduces foreign trade deficit. I'm in the process of discovering the wide spectrum of Serbia's economy, but what I have seen up to now is the huge potential of human resources in the tech area which is to be developed and transformed into a leading revenue generator.

Unlike Israel, Serbia is blessed with fertile soil and water resources, and this adds to the potential of agriculture investments. As I recently read, the government is planning a set of incentives for investment in processing agriculture capacities, and we'll do our best to promote it among our agro-tech companies and investors. I would say the magic word is to prioritize and stimulate sectors that would, in the long run, become an economic driving force.

6. How would you describe your cooperation with the Government of the Republic of Serbia?

Our bilateral relations are excellent with no open political issues and with a historic friendship that our two nations share. It is our intention to further improve economic and trade relations by organizing high official visits, and B2B events to raise awareness among the business community of the potential awaiting to be utilized. Besides that, we will do our best to distribute all relevant information to Israeli businesses on the government's economic initiatives and investment programs.

Among several economic agreements, I would mention the following as the most important: on the protection of investments (2004), trade and economic cooperation (2006) and on cooperation in agriculture (2009). These days we have finalized the wording of the Agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation which we hope will serve to benefit businesses from both countries.

It is our intention to complete the legal framework with agreements that would ease and stimulate economic relations between our countries.

7. Can you tell us something about the relations between Serbia and Israel in the fields of science, culture, and education?

Our two countries have signed the Agreement on Cultural, Educational and Scientific Cooperation in 1998 and we have a special program on the very cooperation which is renewed every three years.

The embassy takes part in various music and dance festivals by bringing Israeli performers here. We organize a film week in all major cities in the country wherein the newest Israeli film achievements are presented. This year, we took part in the International Belgrade Book Fair and we actively cooperate with publishing houses in translating Israeli literature. Our upcoming events are regularly posted on our FB page 'Israel in Serbia', as well as other information on the embassy's activities.

We work closely with Jewish communities in Serbia in cultural and other spheres as we believe they can be a bridge between people and businesses.

8. How would you present your country as a tourist attraction? What aspects and landmarks would you highlight?

Israel is unique, about its historical – religious heritage. There’s only one Holy land in the world and one holy city – Jerusalem. It is a unique label of our tourism potential, but not the only one.

Israel is a vibrant mixture of old and new and we have a statement which describes it best: “In Jerusalem you pray, in Tel Aviv you play!”

Israel is known as a pilgrimage destination, but it has more to offer: the Dead Sea, the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean.

Tel Aviv is a nice city break destination to be discovered, as such, by Serbian tourists. It’s only 3 hours away from Belgrade, with sandy beaches, warm climate, pulsating nightlife and vibrant start up and tech communities.

Last year, Israel was visited by 3 million tourists. It’s been proven that despite geopolitical tension in the region, tourists keep coming back to Israel and personal safety is highly ranked on the list of satisfaction indicators, per the latest tourism survey from 2015.

Tourism generates about $10 billion a year in economic activity, and employs around 200,000 people or 3% of the Israeli workforce, accounting for 2.5% of the Israeli GDP.

With the two Israeli charter flights of Israir and Arkia, introduced in October, together with Air Serbia’s 5 direct, weekly flights, we now have an excellent connection between Belgrade and Tel Aviv.

According to the latest data, we have seen a growth in the number of Serbian tourists visiting Israel in September 2016 compared to September 2015 by 43%. In absolute numbers this is still low, but there’s a positive trend to be worked on.

With additional PR activities and adequate travel packages, both countries have much more to offer in terms of tourism exchange which adds to general bilateral relations.

9.What are the things you particularly like or dislike about Serbia? How do you spend your free time?

My first impression was overwhelming. I had high expectations, hearing from my predecessors about their own experiences in Serbia. It seems that all those expectations have been fully met. Professionally, the Balkans in general, and Serbia in particular, are fascinating. Reality is very fluent here and the society is in a permanent process of changing and reshaping itself. Bilateral relations are also very dynamic and as an ambassador, I feel I have a real opportunity to make a difference and set the agenda, per the needs and expectations of both peoples. Taking this into account, I believe I will focus on economic relations in terms of boosting and encouraging trade, commerce, tourism and investments.

Although I find the Serbian language challenging, it is easy to communicate and converse with people here. Probably the similarities between us make us understand each other and feel at home even without speaking the language. I do hope that by the end of my term here, I will be able to communicate in Serbian.

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