INTERVIEW Israeli Head of Trade: We have fully opened economy with help of intensive vaccination campaign

Israel managed to fully open up the economy earlier this week, with the help of an intensive vaccination campaign and an application that allowed immunized people to have access to public places everywhere, Ohan Cohen, head of the Foreign Trade Administration at the Israeli Ministry of Economy, told AGERPRES in an interview. He was part of the official Israeli delegation that visited Bucharest on June 8-10, chaired by the president, along with representatives of 30 major companies. Almost all people in Israel who could be vaccinated have done so, and there have been no restrictions in the country since Tuesday. Until then, the Israelis used a telephone application that certified that a person was vaccinated and that gave them access everywhere. From the point of view of the economic relations between Romania and Israel, Cohen considers that our country can provide a very well-qualified and cheap labor force for the cyber industry in his country. Other interesting areas of collaboration are agriculture and water management. Trade blockades have led to rising prices during the pandemic, but Cohen believes most things could return to normal by the end of the year with the help of the vaccine and if new strains do not appear. The Israeli official also spoke in the interview about what the post-COVID world might look like, in his opinion, and what states should do to reduce the negative effects of the pandemic. AGERPRES: How was your visit here in Bucharest? Ohad Cohen: Wonderful. This is a presidential visit, so the visit was headed by the Israeli President Rivlin. It started on Tuesday, so this is the last day of the visit. Normally, when the President is travelling abroad, he likes a business delegation to accompany him. The reason for that is that the President and the Government consider economic and trade relations a very important element in the bilateral relations between Israel and Romania. About 30 Israeli companies accompanied the President and these companies are coming from sectors like homeland security, cybersecurity, agriculture, health, smart cities, and during the visit we're trying to - together with the Romanian Chamber of Commerce, the Romania-Israel Chamber of Commerce - to make business interactions between Israeli companies and Romanian companies to provide them the opportunity to build partnership and cooperation. AGERPRES: Did you have a specific result? Did you sign a contract or a partnership during this visit? Ohad Cohen: Normally, when we are traveling, we are trying to see what kind of an agreement is missing in the relations between Israel and the other country that we are going to. But, interestingly, the interaction between Israel and Romania in the past few years has been so intensive that we've covered all the agreements already, before the visit. So there was no need for a government to government agreement. Nevertheless, for some of the Israeli companies that came to Romania, this was their first time to visit Romania, so it was a totally fresh new market for them. Others have already established some relations before and some of them have long relations in Romania. So, I assume, as the visit started only on Tuesday, business does not happen just like that. It takes time, but from our understanding, from talking to the companies, some of them feel that in the coming weeks, or coming months, there will be some deals between Israel and Romania, in different fields. AGERPRES: So they established that they will meet again and develop something together? Ohad Cohen: Exactly. Some of them met each other yesterday and today they already decided to meet again. Which is a very good thing. AGERPRES: Which are the most attractive sectors in Romania for Israeli investments? Ohad Cohen: I can tell you what are the Israeli strengths, and this will reflect on the opportunities in Romania. Israel is a small country, less than ten million people. It's about half of the people that live here in Romania. In Israel we have a very good strength in the software industry, which is cybersecurity, financial technologies, applications, everything around the software industry. About one quarter of our exports is in software. In Romania there is a very strong and very skilled human force, human capital. And the software industry does not need land, does not need water, does not need buildings. It needs people, it needs people's brains. And I think that human capital exists in Romania and the capabilities and the very high education system is the reason for which Romania, together with the Israeli strength, I think that we can have a very good combination. So this is one sector that I foresee... The other one is agriculture, but agriculture in Israel is high-tech. As a country, we don't have enough water, we don't have enough rain, no precipitation, 30 percent of our land is desert. You need technology, otherwise you are not able to compete with the world. We import a lot of agricultural products from Romania, I think that over there there is another room for cooperation, to see how do you bring the Romanian capabilities and the Israeli capabilities and make a joint venture to increase the productivity. Another thing where Israel is good, and it's going to be a problem of the world, not only of Israel and Romania, is water. We are more and more people and not enough water. And even though you have rain, lakes, you need more. You need more water, and in Israel we have two seas. One is called the Dead Sea, which is a very salty sea. And the other one is called the Sea of Galilee, but it's not really a sea, it's a lake. Today it's rather full of water, but it used to have days, years, where we didn't have enough water and it was shrinking and shrinking. So we said that we have one Dead Sea and one Dying Sea. So, we desalinate water. We are taking water from the sea, desalinate it and make potable water. Today, about 50 percent of Israel's water is desalinated. So I think that's there's also room for cooperation. How do you manage the water system, how do you make sure you're using water in a smart way, in an efficient way? So this is another place where there's room for cooperation. AGERPRES: Can you tell us which are the strong parts of the Romanian economy? Ohad Cohen: The advantages of the Romanian economy? As I said before, the human capital. We have Israeli students learning in Romanian universities, and they have possibilities to learn everywhere in the world, and still they decided to learn in Romania. AGERPRES: Why is that? Ohad Cohen: I don't know. They probably found the Romanian education system is a good one, otherwise they would not study here. This is the advantage of a free market. The market speaks for itself. So this is one thing. Secondly, Romania is part of the European Union, I think it's an advantage for Romania, especially as a small country. You have access to a very large market. In spite of the fact that sometimes you have restrictions, you're not as free as you would like to be. But overall, as a foreign person, I would say this is an advantage. I would say the fact that Romania is part of the European Union, on the one hand it gives you a European standard of stability, legal framework in many aspects, on the other hand it gives you the flexibility that, where there is no Brussels standard, still to be able to make something to make Romania more attractive. AGERPRES: Which are the weaker parts? Ohad Cohen: Let's say the challenges that Romania has. So, I would say the fact that Romania is a small country. It's more difficult to attract foreign investments when you are a small country, this is one challenge that Israel is facing as well. And you probably heard about the global tax reform, the 15 percent, what was declared in G7. This is a challenge for small economies, because in the past, you could have a very attractive tax regime for investments and today you have to take into consideration this sort of things. So this is a challenge for Romania, but also for Israel. By the way, if I can go back to one advantage of Romania, it's the fact that it's not expensive yet. It will probably become more expensive in the future, but today, the fact that you can have an educated workforce in relatively reasonable prices is an advantage. If I was Romania, I would use this, the fact that I'm not that expensive compared to other countries with a skilled workforce, I would definitely put it as one of my advantages. AGERPRES: If you were a businessman with a lot of money, where would you put it in the Romanian economy? Ohad Cohen: As I am not a businessman, and don't have a lot of money, I would probably look on the advantages that I was speaking of before. So, where do I have a competitive advantage in my industry that Romania could offer. So, if Romania has a skilled workforce, in relatively lower prices than other countries in the European Union, I would use this opportunity, definitely. At least for the mid-term time. I think that software, absolutely. Because COVID-19 showed us that we can all work from home, that you don't need real estate, you don't need to mobilize people. People can work from everywhere, if you have the right software, the right means, the right protocols of work. You don't need to start moving people from all over the place and pay them transfer fees, etc. Work from wherever you are. Everyone's using Zoom. And interestingly, Zoom existed before COVID-19, but no-one used it. I'm always looking at the full side of the glass, not the empty one, because this is the only one that you can drink from. If I'm looking at full half of the glass, COVID-19 showed us that we can do things in another way. Software is the perfect industry to use a human workforce, and I think that this is one of the advantages of Romania and Israel. AGERPRES: So, if we are as smart as you're saying, we should do more about this as a country? Ohad Cohen: I don't want to give grades or advice to Romania. Our President said a very nice phrase: we're looking at the challenge from an opportunity perspective. We say: Ok, this is a challenge but let's make it an opportunity. And I think this is the right way to do that. AGERPRES: Israel is a champion country in the vaccination campaign. How did this help the economy in the last months? Ohad Cohen: Very much. The fact that today about 60 percent of the Israeli population has already been vaccinated and we are now starting to vaccinate our children. But this is not mandatory, it's voluntary. So I have two children... I have three, but one has already been vaccinated. I have two twins, they are 15 years old and, actually, this morning my wife took them to the doctor to be vaccinated. Israel today, if you come to Israel, it's totally open. From Tuesday, you don't need a mask anymore. It absolutely opened the economy, it opened the hotels, restaurants. Everything is wide open. Factories and businesses are all operating like they operated before COVID-19. The only sector that is still closed is tourism, because as long as the world has not been vaccinated, as long as we don't have enough information about the different variants, we need to be careful. Because it took time to reach the level where the country is open and free, we don't want to ruin it. AGERPRES: Nowadays, how can Romanian people visit Israel? Do they need a vaccine, a certificate or a test? Ohad Cohen: Yes, they need to do a PCR test before they arrive. They must be vaccinated, if they are not vaccinated they cannot come to Israel. AGERPRES: So, vaccination and a PCR test together? Ohad Cohen: Yes, together, and when they arrive in Israel, they need to do another PCR test. But again, I think if I was a Romanian business person traveling to Israel. Okay, it costs a little bit of money, but health is more expensive, so I want to make sure I'm in good health. So, I think it's reasonable, at this period of time. I believe that once people will be more vaccinated, and again, we have more information, I think some of the restrictions may be removed. But not now, not yet. AGERPRES: Did you sign an agreement with the Romanian authorities on the tourism part, so Romanian people can go to Israel or Israeli people come here? Ohad Cohen: No. The Ministry of Tourism in Israel started the pilot program to have a few groups. We want to see how it works, we want to have experience before we open our borders. So, again, we need to take it step by step. It's better to be safe than sorry. AGERPRES: How do you think the world commerce changed with the COVID-19 crisis? Ohad Cohen: First of all, transportation has been more expensive, but sea transportation has been much more expensive than it used to be. In Israel, the prices have almost tripled, which is very, very expensive. And the fact that there aren't as many flights as they used to be. We normally think that when we are traveling, then in the belly of the airplane there are only our suitcases, but in addition to our suitcases there is a lot of cargo going onto the plane. And in the past, a lot of the cargo was moved by air. Today, because we don't have enough air traffic, some of them moved into the sea. This raised the cost. And the fact that we are still under COVID-19 restrictions, the ports are not operating as they used to operate. So, it's like the perfect storm. This, together with the problem in the Suez Canal, a few weeks ago, this was really the perfect storm. AGERPRES: When do you see total recovery of the problem? Ohad Cohen: It will take a few months, I believe, and it is very much dependent on COVID-19. If the world will be vaccinated, then it will be proved that the vaccine is the remedy, is the cure for this COVID-19, then I believe that by the end of the year, at least most things will come back to pre-COVID-19. But, if there is, God forbid, a variant that the vaccine is not resistant to, then we may have a challenge. So we need to be very carefully optimistic. AGERPRES: How will the world look like after this? Ohad Cohen: I think we need to look at it in the short-term and mid-term. In the short-term, business travels will be limited, people will not travel as they used to. Definitely, in what regards tourism, touristic travel. In Israel, we are suddenly exploring our own country, we are suddenly going to places that were there before, but we didn't go. Today, the parks and the hotels in Israel are full because we are traveling in our own country. Secondly, for example exhibitions that used to be a very important part of marketing. They will come back slowly, and people will be more careful traveling into an exhibition, it's an enclosed space with many people from around the world. I think that one of the important things of the world is to create standards, global standards. Who can enter a country, who cannot enter a country. In Israel we have an application, we call it a green passport. From Tuesday, we don't need it anymore, but before that, if you wanted to go to a restaurant, you needed to show it and then you could go to the restaurant. This passport showed that you are vaccinated and the vaccine is valid until this time. You showed this - this is on your phone, or you could have it printed - and then you could enter a hotel, a government building or a restaurant, and I think this was very, very good. It immediately opened the economy, and it's an application, you just download it to your cell phone and that's it. One of the good things that we have in Israel is the public health system, so everyone is covered by the public health system and we have four HMOs, which are health management organizations, which provide their services and everyone has their own doctor and all the medical record is online. So, of course it is safe and secured, this is why you need cybersecurity, but everything is online and the communication between you and your doctor is via the applications. When they wanted to invite us to be vaccinated, they knew my e-mail address, my telephone number. I got a text saying 'Please come to this place, at this time tomorrow, to be vaccinated.' And that's it. You didn't need to go anywhere, you didn't need to call anyone, it came to you. One last thing I wanted to say. We have in Israel, today, about 600,000 people with Romanian origin. People like myself. My mother was born in this country. We have here in the delegation many people that have their parents, or themselves, born in Romania. So, Romania in Israel is perceived as a friendly country, many people have roots in Romania, many people visit Romania, so Romanian people are very welcome to Israel.AGERPRES(RO - author: Florentina Cernat; EN - author: Razvan-Adrian Pandea, editor: Maria Voican)

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