France’s Sarkozy comes out against Israel boycott

On a visit to the country, the once and possibly future French president expresses affection for ‘startup nation’

Nicolas Sarkozy (center), flanked by reporters and MK Erel Margalit (right) on a visit to the offices of Jerusalem Venture Partners, June 8, 2015. (Courtesy)
Nicolas Sarkozy (center), flanked by reporters and MK Erel Margalit (right) on a visit to the offices of Jerusalem Venture Partners, June 8, 2015. (Courtesy)

Those who disagree with Israel’s policies need to find other ways to protest than by boycotting it, believes former French president Nicholas Sarkozy.

“The boycott of Israel is unacceptable,” Sarkozy told reporters in Jerusalem. “This is not the way France intends to conduct itself.”

And after hearing about what Israeli technology can do for France, Sarkozy quickly shifted his attention from the mechanics of not doing business with Israel to the many technologies Israel has developed – specifically cybersecurity tech, one of the strongest high-tech industries in the country. Impressed by the breadth and strength of Israeli cyber-protection systems in place, as well as those under development, Sarkozy had just one question for his hosts at the offices of Jerusalem Venture Partners on a visit Monday: How, asked Sarkozy, “did Israel become the Start-Up Nation?”

It was a fair question to ask at JVP, one of the world’s most successful venture capital firms (as measured by industry experts Preqin). Over the past two decades, JVP has raised over a billion dollars and invested in over 120 companies — with 28 of them having a successful exit, among them the recent IPO of CyberArk, and the acquisition earlier this year of CyActive by PayPal.

Sarkozy was in Israel to meet top officials, including former president Shimon Peres and current President Reuven Rivlin, and spoke at the Herzliya Conference Monday evening. But in-between rounds with political officials, Sarkozy found time to meet with entrepreneurs from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv — many of them olim from France, who are living the “Israeli dream,” with their own start-up and hoped-for exit success. Sarkozy worked the start-up crowd, listening to the entrepreneurs’ tales of start-up success, and joking with them about how useful their tech would be in France.

During a discussion period, Sarkozy huddled with Labor MK Erel Margalit, who started JVP in 1993 (as a member of Knesset, Margalit no longer has an active role in the company), as well as with JVP Managing Partner Gadi Tirosh. The two discussed with the French visitor the role of Israel’s cybersecurity technology in protecting world economy. “Each and every citizen — from Paris, to London and New York — is threatened by cyber-attacks, even if they are not aware of it,” said Margalit.

“Cyber terror is the most serious threat to the free world, no less than the nuclear threat. Fundamentalist terrorists are arming themselves more and more with cyber weapons. The leaders of the free world need to stand together against the boycott of Israel, because you simply can’t boycott the very people leading the free world against this dangerous form of modern terror, terror which threatens each and every one of us,” continued the JVP founder.

Margalit and Tirosh also discussed some of the solutions developed at JVP, which last year established in Beersheba the country’s first accelerator specifically geared to the development of cybersecurity. Among the solutions presented to Sarkozy was the one developed by ThetaRay, which uses big data to automatically uncover unknown cyber and operational threats.

“Our system checks for anomalies both inside and outside a network, evaluating what would be considered ‘normal’ in an organization and what would be anomalous,” said ThetaRay CEO Mark Gazit. Anomalies could take the form of activities not just within a network, but on activities run by the network — which is exactly what happened in the Stuxnet attack, which wreaked havoc with Iranian centrifuges even though monitors showed that everything was normal. Using its analytics, said Gazit, ThetaRay could uncover attacks like that in real time.

Impressed as he was with specific technologies, Sarkozy seemed even more impressed with the entrepreneurs, which led him to ask how Israel turned itself into a nation of start-up entrepreneurs. “It’s Israel’s unique culture, resilience in the face of challenges as well as its entrepreneurs’ quest to go global from inception,” Tirosh told the visitor. “In Israel, failing is not a crime, and entrepreneurs who fail simply go on to the next project and try again. Not fearing to fail is our ‘secret sauce.’”

Sarkozy may have been asking to satisfy his own curiosity — but he may also have been seeking some ideas he can take to the French people. Sarkozy lost the presidency in 2012 to his opponent, Socialist Francois Hollande — who has proven to be extremely unpopular. Officially retiring from politics after the 2012 election, Sarkozy reversed himself last November, encouraged by polls that showed that he would do much better in new elections. The next French presidential election is in 2017, and there is strong speculation that Sarkozy will run.

But on Monday, it was high-tech — and the BDS issue — that Sarkozy tackled. Saying that Israel had created an amazing country via its entrepreneurship and technological achievements, Sarkozy called the country “a true partner” to France.

The former president said he did not want to address the current burning issue in Israel-French relations — the flap over whether or not Orange (the government-owned French Telecom owns 25% of the company) would break its licensing contract with Israel’s Partner Communications. After contradictory statements this week by Orange CEO Stephane Richard, it appears that Orange will not break the contract, but Sarkozy said he did not care to comment on that specific issue. “Whatever the circumstances” that led Richard to proclaim that Orange would join the boycott of Israel, “I will just say that this is not the way to bring peace.” Israel, Sarkozy told reporters, has always had a special place in his heart. “Israel has been the fight of my life,” he said.

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