Archive for July 2009

Jerusalem; sadness or hope?

July 30, 2009

For traditional Jews, this is a sad time of year. They recall the destruction by Babylon and then by Rome of the Jerusalem Temples, on the same calendar date. The book of Lamentations is read, where the opening verses set the tone of mourning: –

Alas – she sits in solitude. The city that was great with people has become like a widow. The greatest among nations, the princess among provinces, has become a tributary.

For all Jerusalem’s stature amongst nations, it has continued to find pain in history. The stories are many.

After Rome left, the crusaders brought new wars. The Turks ran the city into poverty at the turn of the previous century. And in the past decade, the inhumanities of the Intifada and homicide bombing have created hundreds of bereaved families from all ethnic backgrounds.

As deemed by rabbis hundreds of years ago, the suffering is commemorated through a 25 hour fast.

In the same breath, Jerusalem – old and modern – is an amazing place. New visitors are consistently amazed and awakened at its contrasts and beauty. When I take guests around the Old City, I lead them out of Jewish Quarter, which then opens out towards the Temple Mount; a stunning, unravelling view pulling together 3 major religions and thousands of years in one gaze.

It was my wife, who helped me to place all this history in perspective. She is an avid fan of a Jerusalem bike club, which hits the streets every Tuesday evening. It is run by Nitzan from his bike shop on Jaffa Street.

And every Wednesday morning, she rightly describes every detail with a thrill that few of us achieve from other activities. But this week was something special. They were over 50 in total, whose backgrounds included tourists and a foreign film crew.

The ride took them along the northern ridge of Mount Scopus, around the old campus of the university. They progressed through the holy Mount of Olives, where they saw loads of Arab weddings, celebrating with fireworks. They rode down through Gethsemane – despite the late hour, pilgrims were pouring in. And towards the end, they drove in formation along a new bridge at the entrance to the city.

Lamentations, as probably written by the prophet Jeremiah, ends with a message of hope, a call to renew and to return to the days of old. Jerusalem asks people to recall the past in order to learn how to create a future of joy, a future where everyone can live together in peace and in honour.

I feel that it is that hope that my wife was blessed to witness on Tuesday.

Israel cleantech surges ahead

July 30, 2009

Israel has been a strong partner of the third industrial revolution, communications. When it comes to cleantech, Israel has shown itself to be a world leader.

Just look at some of the news items over the past month alone.

Siemens has committed to playing a major role in promoting Israeli cleantech.

New water purification techs were shown off at the annual Greentech exhibition in Tel Aviv.

Last week, I accompanied a European investor to several Jerusalem based companies. And discussions have already moved on considerably in some cases.

“The Economist” magazine featured 2 Jerusalem based solar companies, an impressive honour for the city.

There are several overseas investor conferences promoting Israeli clean technology. I am associated with one in London,  20-22 October 2009. Organised through the commercial attache in London, it will place dozens of companies in front of potential strategic partners. The event has already attracted the attention of international media.

What Israel has done is to take cleantech beyond a dream. Almost daily, concepts are being converted into commercial realities, which is capturing the minds of international investors.

What next for Israel’s economy?

July 28, 2009

The Israeli stock market kicked off the week with a near 4% jump. This brought it back up to the levels of November 2008.

In parallel, unemployment has hit 8.5% and inflationary fears are on the move. What’s going on?

Listening on the radio yesterday, one of the country’s leading constructors, Akirov, referred to the state of two economies. And Israel is well used to this situation. Despite the growth in GDP over decades, Israel has one of the widest discrepancies amongst Western economies between the top and bottom income earners .

Specifically, Israel’s economic policy makers are faced with several contradictions over the next few months.

For example,the rate of interest stands at 0.5%, down from 4% in August 2008. Alhough the Bank of Israel has announced “no change” for August, everybody knows it will start to rise in order to head off inflation.

However, such a movement will protect the shekel, already seen as overvalued against key currencies like the US dollar.

Now look at the stock market: It has been driven upwards by the performances of Wall Street, low interest and future expectations. However, for the small private investor to start risking money on the back of current improvements is… it’s still a risk. The world may be over the worst of a recession, but the downturn still remains in may key economies.

As for the government, there are signs that a budget will be passed soon. However, the pressures of coalition politics place an enormous strain on the spending side. And politically, Mr Netanyahu has not shown a clear capability to lead and to control.

The governemnt has promised huge structural reforms – opening the supply of electricity to competition, privatising the ports, etc. In opposition, the unions have already demonstrated their strengths.

So what’s the bottom line? It is great to read about the stock market leaping forward. However, economic history teaches us that sustained economic growth, the basis of any solid financial revival, rarely comes through one-off, huge improvements.

The government needs to lead through constructive initiatives and sound decision making. Now that would be a revelation in the Holy Land.

Healthcare in Israel

July 25, 2009

A few weeks ago, I received a briefing from The Israel Project about Israel’s healthcare system since 1948. Full of turgid facts, what it proved beyond doubt was that the medical is staffed by all ethnic groups on behalf of ……. all ethnic groups.

So here are a few examples of what I mean by this:

  1. When my teenage son was hospitalised for a stomach complaint, over half the beds were occupied by non-Jews, as was much of the staff.
  2. Save A Child’s Heart international campaign, located in South Tel Aviv, has treated over 800 Palestinian youngsters in the past decade.
  3. Prof. Zeev Rotstein at the internationally accredited Sheba Rehab Center near Tel Aviv was quoted as saying that:  “You have army doctors in white gowns alongside Palestinian doctors who are being trained, at the same time treating Israeli casualties of terrorist attacks and Palestinians who may have been hurt in army actions.”
  4. Earlier this July, a team of 12 physicians from the UK’s NHS  visited Jerusalem to learn more of Jerusalem’s emergency health system, Terem. The software in use has won a prize from Microsoft. The aim is to launch a similar initiative in the UK, drastically waiting time.
  5. And finally, let me show off about my own 16 year old daughter. She is currently completing the next level of being a volunteer for Israel’s ambulance service. Nearly 200 youths are engaged in the course, and yes they come from a multitude of different backgrounds.

As the NHS recognises, there is much in Israel’s heathcare to be copied by others.

Are Israel’s critics wrong?

July 24, 2009

It is politically correct to attack Israel, particularly in the UK.

A discussion in Britain’s House of Commons on 22nd July practically wanted to lynch the whole country: try most of the Israeli government for war crimes, deliberate Israeli campaign to distort customs declarations, open harassment at checkpoints, and so on.

Now these are good people, looking to encourage world peace. They would certainly deny any element of anti-semitism in their hatred. For example, Chris Huhne, is the Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary. He mentioned in a separate debate that:

Britain is setting a shameful new record in anti-Semitic incidents this year, which are running at double the annual rate of the previous record. It is completely abhorrent that anyone should be intimidated on the grounds of their race, colour, gender, sexuality or creed.

Bravo. Yet he continued: “It is absurd that home-grown bigots should hold British Jews responsible for the actions of a foreign government. We cannot have overseas conflicts echoed on Britain’s streets.”

The implication is that British Jews must not support Israel? Israel is an awful place and I will have nothing to do with it? Not quite a double standard, but then a friend of mine pointed out that: –

Liberal Democrats themselves have a great deal to answer for; Jenny Tonge (understands Palestinian terrorist suicide bombers), Nick Clegg (false accusations re Gaza), Chris Davies (Yes, he did actually write “wallowing in your own filth” to a Jewish lady he presumed was a Zionist. He also reported to have denounced something that he called the “Jewish Lobby” and re-stated his position that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is to be rightly compared with the Nazi occupation of Europe.)  The Lib Dems were the first party that invited  Norman Finklestein the Holocaust denier. 

These people are clearly uninterested in Israel’s right to defend herself – for example no mention of the two rifle shooting incidents directed from Gaza this week. No mention that Israel is the one country in the Middle East with a growing Christian population. No mention that Israel is an open society, the one country in the Middle East that accepts UN commissions to investigate – and even when the terms of inquiry state up front that the country is guilty.

Double standards? I don’t know. Not if the House of Commons spends as much time on Israel as with human rights in Saudi Arabia or Libya or Syria? What about the accusations of murder and corruption launched at Hamas….by the Palestinian Authority itself?

The “Economist” is one of the most respected international journals in the world. “The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) this week published the fifth in a series of hard-hitting reports on the state of the Arab world. It makes depressing reading.”

Six Arab countries have an outright ban on political parties and the rest restrict them slyly. They have failed to make their people rich: despite their oil, the UN reports that about two out of five people in the Arab world live on $2 or less a day. They have failed to keep their people safe: the report argues that overpowerful internal security forces often turn the Arab state into a menace to its own people.

Etc etc etc

There will be little if no referral to this sad and damning report in the House of Commons.

And here is the irony and hypocrisy in one. The debate of 22nd July was led by Rob Marris, who declared that he was briefed by Chris Doyle of the Council for the Advancement Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). CAABUwas originally founded by former British diplomats, who fumed at the founding of the state of Israel. An open pressure group, it is difficult to find practicising Jews amongst its membership.

So let’s cut to the chase. When you look at Israel’s critics, has anybody dared to acknowledge the similarity between the language of the 1930s,including Mosley’s fascist blackshirts in the UK, and the current terminology is used to demonize Israel? Is this a task too intimidating or too abhorrent for Mr Huhne’s team to research?

Israeli cleantech sector moves ahead

July 23, 2009

Israel’s cleantech sector has an impressive global reputation. There are now close to 1,000 companies engaged in the industry, not bad for a country the size of Wales.

In the past week alone, two important pieces of news have been posted. An American solar giant, SunEdison, will be moving into Israel. In parallel, Israel’s Office of the Chief Scientist will start to prioritise funding of projects in the cleantech sector.

These are not isolated items. For example, earlier this week, I visited several companies, developing water and solar capabilities, with a European investor. One stop included Solaris Synergy, utilising solar energy from water. Established less than a year ago, they have 2 beta sites in Israel and strong prospects in Europe.

The Ministry of Industry, through the Israel Export Institute, have already announced the details of an Israeli cleantech misssion to London in October. Participants will engage with potential strategic partners. Last week, I met up with Gil Erez, the commercial attache in London, who is organising the event.

In other words, small and medium sized Israeli companies are playing a strongly growing part in the global cleantech industry.

Unilever shows its confidence in Israel

July 22, 2009

Unilever is one of those global giants. Loads of well known household food brands come out of its factories.

In Israel, Unilever has long established itself on the local breakfast table. Annual turnover is estimated at over US$400 million.

To illustrate its importance, anti-Israel boycott groups have tried to target the conglomerate, but without much attributable success. Now, a leaked report in today’s “Yediot” newspaper claims that Unilever will significantly increase its place in the Israeli economy.

Strauss is considered the major seller of ice-creams in Israel with about 60% of the market. It already has a partnership with Unilever. Strauss is now reported as preparing to sell its remaining 49% of its agreement to Unilever.

The value of the contract is not known. It can be assessed against Strauss’s annual turnover of ice cream at around US$150 million per annum.