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Ambassador: Israel “wants to do business”

The Israeli Embassy is launching what it hopes will be the first in a series of events aimed at linking startups, intellectual and venture capital between the two countries. The Budapest Business Journal spoke with Israeli Ambassador to Budapest Ilan Mor about his expectations from the events, the outlook for bilateral economic relations, and anti-Semitism in Hungary.

BBJ: This year marks the first Israel-Hungary Innovation Day initiated by the Israeli Embassy in Budapest with the cooperation of the Hungarian Ministry for National Economy and the National Innovation Office (NIH). What is this initiative, what are its goals?
Mor: This is my initiative with the aim to bring the story of Israeli entrepreneurship to Hungary. Israel has become a start-up nation with thousands of new projects and we want to show like-minded Hungarians our successes and also how we did it. Hungary is in many ways similar to Israel, with a similar number of people living in the country and a wealth of intellectual capital. We would like to show that if we could do it, others could do it as well.

What strategy do Israeli startups pursue? Do they aim abroad like their Hungarian counterparts or do they have a stronger internal market to count on?
Israeli startups are also largely oriented at foreign markets. However, they have venture capital and some government campaigns to rely on that allow them to develop and improve their products as much as possible. They too of course want to make money but they can do more to achieve the best results before seeking an exit.

What are the main areas driving Israel’s startups that you believe Hungarians can learn from?
I think it is essentially a form of attitude. Israeli engineers, before they enter business, have to serve three years in the military, which is a greenhouse of ideas. The army teaches us never to take no for an answer, to always raise questions, always strive for a better solution and not to think of failures that come along the way as a tragedy. This is what made Israel a hub of start-ups, and if major technology firms want to recruit, they don’t have to go far because they all have a local presence.

How did the Hungarian government respond to your proposal to orchestrate the event?
Excellently! Professor Cséfalvay [Minister of State for Economic Strategy at the Ministry of National Economy] immediately supported the idea. The ministry also acknowledged similarities between the two countries, namely that there is a large group of highly skilled young people and a lot of ideas around. We work with the National Innovation Office as well.

You speak highly of Hungary but you know that there is a very vocal, far-right political faction in the country and the government itself has been accused of anti-Semitism. What is your view?
I always say that Hungary isn’t an anti-Semitic country, but there is anti-Semitism in the country. We appreciate Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s declaration regarding a zero-tolerance policy against anti-Semitism. We are also glad that the Hungarian government declared the year 2014 as a Holocaust Memorial Year. Now, we can only encourage the government to be active and to back up its words with deeds. Through constructive ongoing dialogue we should work together in order to make people, especially the young generation, understand the evil character that is anti-Semitism.

What kind of deeds would you like to see?
I’m certain that the government is fully aware of what should be done. Hungary is a member of the European Union, which has clear and strong principles and plans regarding fighting anti-Semitism, which it should apply on a daily basis. The majority of people in Hungary realize that the conspiracy theories about Israel trying to “buy out” and “occupy” the country are completely unfounded.

Besides start-ups, where do you see Hungary and Israel improving their bilateral economic relations?
I definitely see agriculture as the main point of expansion of our bilateral relation. Although I’m no expert, I have learned that Hungary has good soil, a good amount of sunny days and is able to generate excellent agricultural produce. Israel can offer some of the best agro-technologies and water management solutions available. In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to call on all Hungarian investors looking into agriculture to make Israel their destination. If they need help, they can just call me. I’m confident that we can seal concrete deals in the near future.

Have you set any specific margins of success that would leave you satisfied with the results of Innovation Day?
The fact that the event is happening is a success in itself. I see myself as a matchmaker and I’d be happy to start the creation of a network that both countries can benefit from. This is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. The event will host presenters, investors from both countries as well as venture capital that will hopefully lead to actual deals now, or sometime in the future. We would like to share Israel’s success story with Hungary. We want to do business. Hungary is a friendly country to Israel, which is a good reason to work together as partners. If we do business together, it will be good for both of us.

Ilan Mor was appointed as Ambassador to Budapest in February 2011 and started his term in September of that year. Mor has served in a number of positions in the Israeli diplomatic service since joining in 1983, including diplomatic posting to Berlin, Beijing, and Los Angeles, along with advisory and managerial positions in the fields of foreign policy and the prevention of terrorism.