PH, Israel: A lasting partnership
ISRAELI Ambassador to the Philippines Ilan Fluss discussed the Philippines-Israel partnership and programs undertaken in a virtual interview with The Manila Times.
The Manila Times (TMT): Could you give us an overview of bilateral Filipino-Israeli relations? What is the direction of our bilateral relations?
Ambassador Fluss: I would first like to say that I would like to congratulate the Manila Times on its anniversary — 124 years is a long time, many years. So, congratulations.
In general, the relations are, I would say, very good and warm. Historically, we still remember 1928, the Philippines providing safe haven for 1,300 Jewish refugees trying to escape the Nazi regime where most countries, not all countries, closed borders to refugees.
And the Philippines at the time of the president [Manuel] Quezon showed the gesture of giving the message to help those in need. And that’s something we really appreciate.
And the second thing I would mention, which is very important to us historically, is 1947 when the Philippines voted in favor of the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel, voted at the United Nations. This lays the groundwork for the political foundation for the establishment of the State of Israel.
For this reason, until today, Filipinos do not need a visa to enter Israel and I think this is one of the reasons why we are seeing a very good flow of people, a movement of people between our two countries because it’s easier without a visa.
I hope when we see direct flights between our two countries, and I’m very optimistic that this will happen next year, I think Manila-Tel Aviv will be a very busy route.
First of all, there is always a very good feeling that people feel very comfortable, very interested, very warm towards each other. I think it comes from similar values - the importance of family, the value of the family, the value of charity, mutual aid, the community, I think these are issues that we share between our societies, our two countries.
Today we just had a JCM, the joint committee meeting, which is an annual political meeting between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel and the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) here. We did an overview of the relationships.
And generally, things are going well between our two countries, friendly, warm, open discussions.
TMT: In terms of trade and commerce, are there any new avenues we can explore to further strengthen our economic cooperation?
Ambassador Fluss: I will say that my vision as Israel’s Ambassador to the Philippines is to create bridges of innovation and technology between our two countries, which means that one side must transfer knowledge, which we do. in Israel.
Because Israel is known as a global innovation hub. I want to share this experience and help the Philippines create its own innovation system where you can have local innovation, entrepreneurship. And to support this, I work both at the government level and in the private sector, in academia, and I also introduce relevant Israeli technologies that can support the development process here in the Philippines.
In this regard, last week in the Philippines we had a delegation of companies from the agricultural sector who came to a major agricultural exhibition in Davao, which is the “food basket of the Philippines”. We participated in it. I was there in Davao last week.
There is a lot of interest in Israeli technologies and it is also part of the vision and one of the main objectives of the president (Ferdinand Marcos Jr.) is to improve agricultural productivity and food security, and we are trying to support these efforts. The State of Israel is a leader in agricultural technology.
So, on the one hand the economy and trade, so more trade delegations. We are also considering the arrival of another delegation to the Philippines in the field of water. We are also planning to have an exhibition on Israeli innovation in the Philippines, which will be presented here. We have Israeli experts to talk about Israeli innovations.
During the pandemic two years ago, the Israeli embassy expanded and we opened a trade and economic office in the embassy, which shows that Israel is now investing more in promoting relations between our two countries in this sector.
Last June, Secretary of the DTI (Ministry of Trade and Industry) [Ramon] Lopez traveled to Israel and signed three deals. One on the protection and promotion of investments, the other is the establishment of a joint economic committee, which will meet once a year to analyze the economic cooperation of the two governments, and the third is cooperation in the field of innovation with the Israeli Innovation Institute.
TMT: In terms of defense cooperation, are there any new discussions to help the Philippines further improve its defense and military capabilities in terms of training or upgrading weapons?
Ambassador Fluss: Two years ago, again in the midst of the pandemic, we opened a new office in the embassy of a defense attaché, a representative of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, which I think is a very strong message that there is an interest on the Israeli side to work with the Philippine government as a reliable partner to support the modernization program of the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) and to really be a reliable partner, a trusted partner.
In recent years, Israel has become one of the sources of the defense system, defense technologies for the AFP, also for the [Philippine] Coast Guard, also for the [Philippine National] Police. And we are proud to contribute to peace and security in the Philippines and to participate in the efforts of the modernization program.
A few weeks ago we witnessed the arrival of the first two Shaldags, a fast boat for the [Philippine] Marine. There will be nine in all and the last ones will actually be assembled here in the Philippines. It is therefore an element of transfer of technological know-how and work to the Philippines of which we are very proud.
The Shaldag is a fast boat, an outboard that serves as a patrol, an intervention. It contains all kinds of systems. It’s small and fast.
So the Israeli systems are there, and we are in discussion with the new administration about Israeli participation in the next modernization program. And we are in serious discussions about the continuation of Israeli programs.
TMT: The Philippines owes a lot to Israel when it comes to training Filipino students in agriculture. Are there any new activities to further develop our agricultural sector to ensure food security for Filipinos?
Ambassador Fluss: We are developing more programs here. The biggest is the agricultural internship program in Israel where we sent 500 Filipinos who came from the agricultural sector. They go to Israel for 11 months for a technical training program. They work five days a week. They study one day a week, one day a week [they] Rest.
They work for five days with farmers, learning about Israeli technologies, Israeli best practices and the Israeli mindset of commercial farming. The farmer in Israel, he has to earn money. It must work like a business. So he has a business model and a business plan. It’s not like backyard farming or small-scale farming. You have to bring in money, you have to understand the market, you have to manage post-harvest technologies.
So it’s not just technology. It is also planning. It’s understanding the market. These are different practices. That’s a lot of knowledge. So they learn a lot. And I think it’s more about helping them change their mentalities. And after 11 months, they are also able to save money. And the day they come back here to the Philippines, they become agropreneurs and start their own agricultural entrepreneurship or join the government.
This program is run in partnership with Tesda (Technical Education and Vocational Training Administration) and we are seeing some of them return to Tesda. And Tesda introduces areas that students have learned. They help students to implement it in Tesda centers and they can teach these practices to other young farmers.
Later, the last batch will leave for Israel I think towards the end of this week. I am very proud of this program. In addition, Israeli experts share their knowledge and know-how with Filipinos. Things are progressing well. I would like to see even more. But these things take time.
We had a delegation from UST (University of Sto. Tomas) in Israel and we organized an event in Davao where Israel is the only country to be part of the “Start Up Week” in Davao to support startups. We had a network of innovators from the start-up community.
So we’re really looking forward to doing a lot more for innovation because I think economic innovation is very important. And we are here, Israel is here as a partner to work with the Philippines. I strongly believe in the private sector. I help the private sector. Also, I strongly believe in working with local governments.
TMT: Are there any plans to invite President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. to visit Israel in the near future?
Ambassador Fluss: He has been to Israel in the past. He has started his presidency and he has his priorities. We will be happy to welcome the president to Israel. We have seen that the visit of the President [Rodrigo] Duterte in 2018 really brought a sea change to our relationships.
I therefore believe that such a visit will be a strong message that will really facilitate relations [between our two countries]. I think we will see many other initiatives. We have to wait and see.