Israel finds tech prowess a useful tool to burnish international image

Diplomats are being trained to ‘talk tech’ and showcase innovation to promote the country’s interests, says Andy David, innovation director at the Foreign Ministry

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

An illustrative image of diplomacy: a photo of national flags from around the world 
(123ArtistImages; iStock by Getty Images)
An illustrative image of diplomacy: a photo of national flags from around the world (123ArtistImages; iStock by Getty Images)

Israel is employing its image as Startup Nation as a tool in foreign diplomacy, injecting “tech talk” into the centuries-old art of foreign relations.

Israeli diplomats are being trained on how to “talk tech, show off Israel’s innovation and take that attraction and channel it to promote the interests of the nation,” Andy David, the director of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Technology at the Foreign Ministry, told The Times of Israel. The unit he heads was set up a little over a year ago to provide diplomats with the tools to leverage Israeli technology in paving the way for better relations with other countries.

“We Israelis have created an asset — the Startup Nation, or, as more and more are referring to Israel, the Innovation Nation — so we at the Foreign Ministry are looking at how this asset can serve to promote our diplomatic and economic interests,” David said.

As the world is becoming more digitalized, nations worldwide are beginning to understand that the key to maintaining a competitive economic edge is to climb onto the tech bandwagon. “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest,” Benjamin Franklin said centuries ago. As that message hits home in a world in which technology is revolutionizing the way we live, produce, and drive, countries are turning to Israel, known as a hot spot for a variety of technologies including self-driving carslife sciences, communications technologies, agricultural technologies and artificial intelligence.

Andy David, the director of Innovation, entrepreneurship and Technology at the (Courtesy the Foreign Ministry)

“More and more countries are realizing that if you don’t innovate, you stay behind,” said David. “The Visegrad countries (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic), Baltic states, China, India, Greece and Cyprus are just a few examples of countries that have added innovation cooperation as an important component to their policies toward Israel. It adds to the depth and intimacy of our relations because we are addressing their needs in the fields of technology.”

Israel has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Visegrad countries for technological cooperation.  “No matter if you’re big or small, we are relevant,” David said. “We now have a massive cooperation program with India, we are expanding our relations with Cyprus beyond security and energy into tech and even into space-tech, and the list is growing fast.”

The bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the nation’s often bitter relations with its Arab neighbors have dominated Israel’s foreign policy for decades, as nations have boycotted the country or consistently voted against it in United Nations decisions. On Monday, Israel launched an operation to destroy a number of cross-border attack tunnels that it says were dug by the Iran-backed Hezbollah group into northern Israel from Lebanon.

IDF soldiers patrol near Metulla, close to the border with Lebanon, February 10, 2018. (Flash90)

“In many cases our work as diplomats has been about us needing something or asking something of other nations, like helping us or supporting us on this or that issue,” said David. Now, “we are planting the seeds for a different kind of relationship, where Israel is an asset, and we are giving rather than requesting.”

As foreign multinational corporations snap up Israeli technologies and set up research and development centers in Israel, delegations from around the world are visiting in a bid to find out the secrets of the Israeli tech ecosystem and to tap into budding technologies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also foreign minister, often talks about how Israeli technology is paving the way for diplomacy.

“Because of Israel’s success, because of Israel’s growth as a global technological power we are reaching out to a lot of countries,” Netanyahu said in October at a smart mobility conference in Tel Aviv. “Our position in the world has changed. Our diplomatic horizons are expanding beyond belief very fast.”

President Idriss Deby of Chad is welcomed at Ben Gurion Airport, November 25, 2018. (Avi Hayon/Foreign Ministry)

Last month, the president of Chad, Idriss Déby, landed in Israel and kicked off an unprecedented trip for the leader of the Muslim-majority nation in Central Africa, which does not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. In October, Netanyahu secretly traveled to Oman, becoming the first Israeli prime minister to do so in more than 20 years. Netanyahu’s beach stroll in Israel with India’s Narendra Modi caused online waves last year, as the two nations discussed agricultural, water, security and satellite technologies and the creation of a $40 million innovation fund.

“So we are thinking: what can we do to expand and accelerate this?” said David. “We have started some programs which are harnessing the newly found attraction to our innovation and channeling it to promote our diplomatic interests. Challenges that traditionally derived from a very narrow conversation limited to conflict related issues are now met by our ability to broaden the conversation to spheres where Israel is relevant and attractive.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi visit the water desalination plant at Olga beach on July 6, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

“The world is tipped against us in some cases, and there are many actors with interests working against us. Technology is one tool we can use to rise above that and make a difference,” David said.

Just this week, a group of 28 young entrepreneurs from the Visegrad nations visited Israel to learn how to take an idea and turn it into a global company, David said, in a pilot initiative promoted by the Foreign Ministry. “Based on the feedback of the participants, we will soon expand this program and apply it to other countries.”

Another program, called the Partnership Accelerator “because its accelerates our relationship with countries,” David said, was set up with Germany, and connects large and mid-sized German companies with Israeli researchers and engineers, to help them solve challenges they are facing. The Foreign Ministry is now seeking to expand this program to other countries, David said.

David also mentioned that in September a group of women from the Czech Republic came to Israel to seek business partnerships.

Andy David, center, the director of Innovation, entrepreneurship and Technology at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with group of women from the Czech Republic that came to seek business partnerships in Israel; Sept. 2018 (Courtesy)

“Such a visit, of women from the Czech Republic, would have been unheard of five years ago,” he said. “They would have gone to Germany or France but not Israel, because Israel was not on their radar. But Israel’s tech image is changing this,” David said.

In addition, the Foreign Ministry now makes a point of including “an innovation component” for almost every diplomatic visit to Israel.

“In this way high-ranking decision makers don’t speak to us only about security or conflict, but also how Israel can be an asset to them in terms of its technology,” David said. “For the past 20 years everyone has known that Israel is an asset in terms of security and intelligence, but it is more than that now. The more these countries see us in the context of solutions to their problems rather than a problem, the more relevant we become to them.”

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