MUNICH, Germany — There was no mention of Iranian drones or corruption investigations in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks to 38 CEOs and board chairmen ahead of the Munich Security Conference on Friday. His focus was singular: Bring foreign investment to Israel.
“Come and see me personally,” he told the financiers. “I’ll take the time.”
Netanyahu, touting his credentials as a former finance minister and private business consultant, boasted to the all-male business leaders and the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde — the lone female participant — that Israel’s economy was doing well and getting better.
The prime minister was in top form at the lunch meeting, at Munich’s Bayerischer Hof Hotel spa, cracking jokes, dropping names and praising Israeli financial achievements and technological breakthroughs.
The meeting came three hours before the official start of the Munich Security Conference, a three-day confab in which prime ministers and senior officials from around the world — including British Premier Theresa May, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — will discuss the pressing defense and diplomatic issues of the day.
Come to Israel
The prime minister tried to tantalize the CEOs with the prospect of a well-funded, less-taxed, less regulated Israeli market.
“This year in Jerusalem,” he said, riffing off an oft-heard Jewish saying.
He vowed to cut taxes for businesses in order to encourage them to come to Israel, citing the United States’ recent tax code overhaul as a major motivating factor in his decision to drop taxes further.
“If we have to, we’ll push it to the ground,” he said.
The current corporate tax rate in Israel is 23 percent.
He joked that he serves on two ministerial committees — the security cabinet and “the regulations committee, which should really be called the anti-regulations committee.”
Netanyahu stressed Israel’s technological breakthroughs, as well as the private and government investment in fields like cybersecurity and medicine.
“The future belongs to those who innovate,” the prime minister told the business leaders, including the heads of BMW, Siemens, Raytheon and Deutsche Telekom.
You have a lot more wealth being created by a lot fewer people, which makes some policy problems for people like us who earn their living from the voters and not from shareholders
The prime minister also acknowledged that the way technology companies make money, compared to energy and manufacturing businesses, present a challenge to governments.
“You have a lot more wealth being created by a lot fewer people, which makes some policy problems for people like us who earn their living from the voters and not from shareholders,” he said, in English.
“It will be, perhaps, one of the most dramatic problems we’ll face at the juncture of politics and business,” he added.
Netanyahu focused the bulk of his speech on Israel’s start-up and high-tech bonafides, which he credited to the country’s large investment in its military cybersecurity.
He said the country had the “second largest” equivalent of the US’s National Security Agency in the world, referring to the IDF Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200.
He then added for emphasis, “I don’t know if you heard what I just said. It’s the second largest NSA, not in relative terms. The United States is 42 times larger than the State of Israel. Its NSA is not 42 times the size of Israel’s NSA, it’s not even 10 times the size.”
The prime minister referred to this outsized military unit as a “sunk cost that we have to put in to survive,” which Israel has also tried to turn into an engine for business.
“I decided that what we’ll do is leverage it. We put it smack in the middle of [Beersheba’s] Ben Gurion University in the Negev. We put rail lines that lead to Tel Aviv, and built a cyber park, which is where there are now the leading cybersecurity companies,” he said.
The prime minister illustrated the success of the government’s actions to encourage members of Unit 8200 to enter into the business world with an anecdote from a visit to the Beersheba cyber park.
What do I do now? Now I’m rich!
“I was recently with [Forbes magazine editor in chief] Malcolm Forbes in Beersheba. I saw there a young person who looked familiar. He said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, a few years ago, I was your NSA briefer,” he said.
“I asked him, ‘What do you do now?'” Netanyahu recalled. “He said, ‘What do I do now? Now I’m rich!'”
The prime minister said expanding the government’s investment in fields like quantum computing would allow for advances in cracking encryption codes, which are and will be increasingly important in the world.
“If you have the capacity — by order and orders of magnitude — to have computing power that cracks codes, then our world has just changed. Power shifts in ways that are not even imaginable,” he said.
“So we will invest and, in fact, we are investing in these areas, not merely to seize the future, but also to protect it,” Netanyahu said.