Despite issues such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process taking center stage at this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the opportunity of the summit to tout Israel’s growing economic and technological clout to the world’s top businesses and leaders.
In an interview with Netanyahu at the conference, CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria focused largely on Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict, but acknowledged that “Israel is an economic superpower, particularly in technology.”
Affirming Zakaria’s assessment, Netanyahu highlighted his recent trips to Africa and India.
“This is a revolution…One of our great principles in our tradition is that Israel should be a light unto the nations, and when we can offer security, and food, and cleaner water and cleaner air—anything from cherry tomatoes to cyber security…that’s something of deep pride,” said the prime minister.
Netanyahu has attended the high-profile Davos conference a number of times in recent years for the very purpose of engaging with world leaders to promote Israel’s business and strategic interests. This year, he held meetings with, among others, Swiss President Alain Berset, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. He urged the European leaders to work towards fixing the Iran nuclear deal. The Israeli leader also met with Guatemalan Finance Minister Julio Hector Estrada, whom he thanked for Guatemala’s intention to move its embassy to Jerusalem.
Speaking with Berset on an outdoor balcony, Netanyahu told the Swiss president that he had looked at Switzerland’s economic statistics and noticed it is ahead of Israel on the Bloomberg financial news agency’s innovation index—5th in the world, to Israel’s 10th. Netanyahu teased that Israel would engage in a “fair fight” with Switzerland for its position in the rankings.
Prof. Eugene Kandel—CEO of the innovation-focused Israeli nonprofit Start-Up Nation Central as well as the former head of Israel’s National Economic Council and former economic adviser to the prime minister—told JNS that Netanyahu was in Davos because he “has always had a very strong emphasis on technology and on our capabilities to solve problems. That is the goal—to start expanding the conversation.”
Commenting on Netanyahu’s remark in Davos that Israel can “help the people around the world, but also help people in our corner of the world,” Kandel said, “The idea is to use our technological advantage that we developed to solve our problems to help them solve their problems—something we have been doing for 25-plus years. It used to be we would only solve our own existential problems. But we soon realized that some of the technology we developed could be useful in other areas as well.”
Regarding Netanyahu’s proud mention of Israel’s emerging “automotive industry” in his discussion with Zakaria, Kandel noted that Israel “is not the only one with autonomous technology, but car manufacturers have an ally in Israel since we have no car industry and we are not big enough to pose a threat. We are not biased. That puts us in a very interesting position and we have some very central technology, which is very relevant.”
Last year, the American high-tech giant Intel acquired Mobileye, an Israeli developer of self-driving car technology, for more than $15 billion.
Not surprisingly, much attention on Israel’s presence in Davos focused on issues other than Israeli innovation. In a joint press conference with President Donald Trump, Netanyahu thanked the American leader for working to fulfill his promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, for taking a “stalwart position on the Iran nuclear deal” and for standing up for Israel at the U.N.
Trump responded in what appeared to be a reversal of his earlier assessment last May that the Palestinians are ready to make peace with Israel.
“I can tell you, Israel does want to make peace, and [the Palestinians] are going to have to want to make peace, too, or we aren’t going to have anything to do with them any longer,” he said.
Trump also said he “took Jerusalem off the table” through recognizing the city as Israel’s capital and told Netanyahu, “You won one point. And you’ll give up some points later on the negotiation—if it ever takes place….Israel will pay for that.”
While it is unclear what Trump meant by “Israel will pay for that,” Dennis Ross, counselor and fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank as well as a former Mideast adviser to both Democratic and Republican U.S. presidents, told JNS that the language suggests Israel “would have to make concessions to the Palestinians on other issues.”
“That actually implies that [Trump] means what he says about Jerusalem having been taken off the table,” said Ross. “Maybe, however, all he means is that the question (emphasis added) of Jerusalem being Israel’s capital has been taken off the table. But no leader of Israel was ever going to accept an outcome in which Jerusalem—or at least some very significant part of it—is not the capital of Israel. In that sense, this was actually never on the table.”
Trump denounced the Palestinian boycott of his administration and, referring to the hundreds of millions of dollars the Palestinians receive in annual U.S. aid, threatened that “the money is on the table” and encouraged them to return to negotiations, reiterating that the Palestinians must show respect to the U.S.
Ross said, “There is a seeming contradiction between the president saying he has taken Jerusalem off the table and his original declaration in which he said he was not recognizing the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty because those must be negotiated. He explicitly said he was not prejudging the negotiations—and [Vice President Mike] Pence repeated this point [in his Jan. 22 speech] to the Knesset.”
“As for the money to the Palestinians—the only money that we give directly to the PA (Palestinian Authority) is for the Palestinian security forces and is pegged not just to training but cooperation with Israel,” Ross pointed out. “Is this a practice the administration would like to see ended? I doubt it. But to be fair, President Trump is making a basic point that saying no to us or disrespecting us comes at a price.”