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H.E. Yahel Vilan, Ambassador Of Israel To Serbia

Friends Who Occasionally Disagree

I met with President Vučić a few weeks ago and was impressed and moved by his personal commitment for the commemoration of Staro Sajmište and the role Jews played in this country for centuries. This is the backbone of our two nations’ relations ~ Yahel Vilan

Israeli Ambassador to Serbia Yahel Vilan says that official relations between Israel and Serbia “have not been at their peak in the last two years,” but that he personally has good contacts with people in Serbia, where he says he “encounters special affection on a daily basis”. Commenting on Israel’s decision – taken two years ago – to recognise the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo, ambassador Vilan says that “friends could also disagree from time to time”, noting that Serbia has long since recognised Palestine.

Your Excellency, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the restoring of diplomatic relations between Israel and Serbia. Could you explain the metaphor “Neighbours at heart”, which you recently used to describe relations between our two countries?

Well, I think that if there is one element/aspect of our relations that hardly needs further clarification, it is this one, born of the deep connection and the courageous and long-lasting friendship between our two peoples. A friendship that is based, first and foremost, on the enduring relationship between the Serbs and their Jewish neighbours here in Serbia, which actually stood throughout the years at the root of the relationship between the two countries. And that includes all those years during which official diplomatic ties were severed, and that is why I’ve also mentioned more than once that this year we mark 30 years only of the renewal of official diplomatic relations between the countries, because those friendly ties between the people were never severed.

I met with President Vučić a few weeks ago and was impressed and moved by his personal commitment for the commemoration of Staro Sajmište [WWII concentration camp site] and the role Jews played in this country for centuries. This is the backbone of our two nations’ relations. I can also share with you my very positive personal experience: I encounter this special affection on a daily basis, despite the fact that official relations between our countries have not been at their peak in the last two years.

However, let me give you an even better and more recent example: see how Novak Đoković was received in Israel about two weeks ago. I have no doubt that he will himself testify that there are few places in the world where he felt as at home as he did in Tel Aviv.

It has also been two years since you came to Serbia, with your arrival having coincided with Israel’s unexpected decision to recognise Kosovo’s unilaterally declared independence. That recognition, coupled with the opening of an embassy of Kosovo in Jerusalem, represents practically the only points of the so-called Washington Agreement to have been fulfilled. From today’s perspective, are you satisfied with what’s been achieved?

Honestly, I don’t think there’s much I can add or update on this issue, especially in light of the fact that the immediate consequence for me of the recognition of Kosovo was that it is no longer under my diplomatic jurisdiction. I just want to remind us all, once again, that Israel was not a party to the Washington agreements, which were signed separately between Serbia and the U.S.A. and between Kosovo and the U.S.A. I am therefore probably not the right interlocutor for the question of what has or hasn’t been implemented from those agreements on the ground between Serbia and Kosovo.

We were very happy that the promise to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem on the part of Serbia was included in the Washington agreements, and if this had indeed happened, I have no doubt that it would have led to a considerable improvement in relations at the most practical and everyday level

Having said all that, if you ask me what was achieved from our point of view, Kosovo fulfilled its part of the agreement that concerned us and opened its embassy in our capital Jerusalem and we, in return, recognised it.

Serbia opted, like the majority of countries, for its embassy to remain in Tel Aviv. To what extent have these moves influenced the quality of our bilateral relations?

Jerusalem is the official capital of the State of Israel and, as such, our expectation is that the same rules of diplomatic protocol all over the world will apply also in our case, and all embassies will be in our capital city. Especially from a friendly country like Serbia. We were therefore very happy that this promise to move the embassy to Jerusalem on the part of Serbia was included in the Washington agreements, and if this had indeed happened, I have no doubt that it would have led to a considerable improvement in relations at the most practical and everyday level.

We presume that you wouldn’t respond positively to Serbia’s calls to overturn your country’s decision to recognise Kosovo’s independence?

Serbia is an important partner and we attach high significance to its concerns and sensitivities. This was the case during the 12 years when we did not recognise Kosovo despite substantial pressure from our best allies, and that friendship with Serbia had a lot to do with that too. And this is still the case now. Friends could also disagree from time to time. Serbia has right here in Belgrade a Palestinian Embassy, after it recognised that entity a long time ago.

The bottom line in my mind is that it would be much better for both of us to concentrate on what we do agree upon and not on what we don’t. The potential for our relations in all aspects of life is so much greater and I want to believe we should focus on that for the mutual benefit of both of us. You’ve asked me about this “Neighbours at heart”, and I strongly believe that this is far stronger than any political disagreement and I see my main task as being in finding how to translate this special friendship into tangible achievements that will improve the lives of every Serb and every Israeli. That is my goal.

Turning to the economic aspects of our bilateral cooperation, it’s worth noting investments in the real estate sector to date have been dubbed the trademark of Israeli investment. Do you see possibilities for cooperation in other areas?

Real estate investments are the flagship of Israeli investments in Serbia. With more than two billion euros invested in completed and ongoing projects, such as office parks, retail parks, shopping malls and residential and mixed-use premises, Israel is a leading real estate investor in the country. Our companies have been pioneers in launching the concepts of office parks, retail parks and condominium residences, thus levelling up the quality of life for the people of Belgrade and Serbia. And they are here to stay and invest more, because they believe strongly in the economic future of this country.

Israeli companies did invest in other sectors as well, such as precise castings for turbojets, coffee production and packaging, transportation, renewable energy, IT services and others.

We are focused and tasked with introducing the Israeli cyber industry to Serbian government institutions and the private sector, in order to build lasting partnerships and cooperation

There are more and more Israeli IT companies opening their offices in Belgrade. Last month alone, I personally attended three openings of such offices. Existing IT companies are expanding by opening offices in Niš, Novi Sad and Čačak, alongside Belgrade.

Other sectors of cooperation that we are promoting and where we are exerting efforts are: wastewater treatment, renewable energy and cyber.

Out of necessity and due to water scarcity, Israel treats 90% of wastewater to different levels of reuse: to the one in agriculture and as potable water. As part of its EU accession, but also as an ongoing environmental challenge, Serbia has a huge need to develop numerous wastewater treatment facilities across the country.

Our companies have all the necessary expertise and technology in this regard and are ready to assist and engage with municipalities and public utilities to develop efficient water treatment facilities.

Other issue of high interest for us, but also of strategic importance to every country, include the cyber security of critical infrastructure, state institutions and agencies, as well as companies. With some 47 multinational cybersecurity-related operations in Israel, and one in every three cyber security unicorn in the world being Israeli, we proudly hold the title of a cyber-nation. We are focused and tasked with introducing the Israeli cyber industry to Serbian government institutions and the private sector in order to build lasting partnerships and cooperation.

The energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine has led to the alreadyimportant issue of renewable energy becoming even more of an imperative. What are Israeli companies that operate in Serbia planning in the RES sector?

Cooperation in the field of energy is on the rise, especially over the last two to three years. We signed an MoU on Cooperation in Green Energy. Even before the current energy crisis, Serbia defined the ambitious goal of generating 40% of its energy from renewable sources by 2040. The relevant ministry also set the new regulations (laws and bylaws) that make the environment for investments in renewable sources favourable.

The Kovačica Wind Farm, with a capacity of 104.5 MW, is an investment of Israeli company Enlight and is the most valuable Israeli green investment in Serbia, worth 189 million euros. The same company has also developed the Pupin Wind Farm, with 95MW of installed capacity, which is ready for construction. The Kovačica Wind Farm, under the operational management of New Energy Solutions, Enlight’s Serbian partner, just achieved its first million MWh since it launched commercial operations, thus supporting the energy transition of Serbia!

Israeli companies are eager to contribute to Serbia’s green agenda by investing in wind and solar energy primarily. In this regard, the embassy has noted increased interest among companies that are ready and looking for investments in solar energy in Serbia.

When it comes to the energy crisis in Europe, can Israel really make up for 10 per cent of the gas that Europeans previously sourced from Russia, as was announced recently by Prime Minister Yair Lapid? Which routes would that gas take to reach the EU?

There can be no doubt about Europe’s urgent need to diversify its gas supply in the wake of the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis. In this context, Israel, Egypt, and the EU signed a Memorandum of Understanding last June, capturing the parties’ interest in increased collaboration on trade, transportation and the export of natural gas to EU countries. In addition to the existing infrastructure already supporting exports to Egypt and Jordan, the Government of Israel is evaluating a few other pipelines that will allow increased exports to these two markets and to new markets. One of the options is an offshore pipeline to Egypt, where the gas would be liquified and shipped to Europe. Another option is the ambitious “East-Med” offshore pipeline, currently pending a final investment decision, which is intended to transport gas from Israel and Cyprus’ offshore gas fields to Europe.

As for the exact numbers, once gas extraction from the Karish gas field starts, which is set for the coming days, Israel will have a gas surplus enabling it to export around 10 billion cubic metres of this fuel to European Union states every year

As for the exact numbers, once gas extraction from the Karish gas field starts, which is set for the coming days, Israel will have a gas surplus enabling it to export around 10 billion cubic metres of this fuel to European Union states every year. Additional surplus may emerge once gas extraction from the Leviathan gas field increases from the present 12 bcm to 21 bcm annually. To the best of my knowledge, the EU purchased 155 bcm of gas from Russia, which means the combined capacity of both the Karish and Leviathan gas fields should be able to do just what our PM mentioned.

However, I think that in the field of energy, the big picture is way more important than the exact numbers and it can really put our relations – not only of Israel, but of the entire Eastern Mediterranean countries and Europe – into a totally new dimension.

In response to the war in Ukraine, we are seeing states increasingly being called upon to choose the “right side”. How would you respond to the question of which side Israel is on; and to what extent could the current geopolitical situation have a negative impact on the stability of the region closest to you, i.e., on the Middle East?

Israel, in many ways, like Serbia, had quite a lot of variables in this equation: the large numbers of Jews in both Russia and Ukraine and the situation along our northern border, to cite just a few of them. Jerusalem, like Belgrade, is not recognising the results of Russian-held referendums in Russian occupied territories in eastern and southern Ukraine. Following our Prime Minister’s recent statements, one should have no doubts about which side Israel is on at the moment. Most importantly, I wholeheartedly hope this war will be over at the earliest opportunity, first and foremost for the people of Ukraine.

Early October saw positive, optimistic media reports on the possibility of agreement being reached between Israel and Lebanon on the demarcation of the maritime border that extends over an area that’s rich in natural gas. However, the most recent reports suggest that fresh sharpening of relations will come instead of the agreement that was proposed by the U.S. What lies at the heart of this disagreement?

Actually “as we speak”, our government has just confirmed the American led proposal for agreement on the maritime boundary between Israel and Lebanon. This agreement on the maritime line between Israel and Lebanon brings security, political, economic and energetic achievements for Israel, but also for Lebanon. Reaching an agreement is in the clear interest of Israel, while at the same time is a Lebanese interest. Moreover, a Lebanon that is a stable and prosperous neighbour that is not a platform for the terrorism of Hezbollah, and not a servant of Iran, is definitely Israel’s interest. The establishment of a rig and activity to produce natural gas also on the Lebanese side of the maritime line will contribute to strategic regional stability.

This is a window of opportunity, after more than 10 years of negotiations, due to the fragile political and economic situation in Lebanon, and I strongly believe this agreement will provide a great contribution to the stability and prosperity of all parties in both the short and long term.

A high-level meeting was recently held between representatives of the EU and Israel, following a break of a full decade. How does your country view the European impulse to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict by way of a “two-state solution”?

The EU-Israel Association Council, reconvened for the first time in a decade, between Prime Minister Yair Lapid on our side and High Representative Josep Borrell on the EU side, was indeed a very significant one. PM Lapid reiterated the commitment to the two-state solution that he made in his address to the United Nations General Assembly a few days earlier, but he also clarified to his European counterparts that “the Palestinians need to put an end to terrorism and incitement. Israel wants peace that will lead to security, not peace that will destabilise the Middle East”.

The Kovačica Wind Farm, with a capacity of 104.5 MW, is an investment of Israeli company Enlight and is the most valuable Israeli green investment in Serbia, worth 189 million euros. The same company has also developed the Pupin Wind Farm, with 95MW of installed capacity, which is ready for construction

If you ask me about the way I interpret it, I don’t think there’s really a big gap between us and the EU on this solution as a long-term vision, but, at the same time, we all have to be realistic and, in reality, the situation on the ground is unfortunately not ripe for such a solution. On the contrary, Hamas-controlled Gaza is definitely not a partner and even the recent situation in the West Bank is just deteriorating with more and more terrorist attacks on a daily basis.

And yet, it should be noted that this was not the main point of the meeting, but rather this is the forum for Israel and the EU to discuss ways to develop and upgrade relations in the fields of science, economics, energy and environmental issues, which are of the highest importance to both sides. The EU is our main partner in all of these topics, also on the political front and in the Palestinian issue in particular. As the Prime Minister noted: “Israel is attentive to its friends, much more than to those who go against it, and this is a dialogue between friends, even if there are disagreements”.

WA ACHIEVEMENTS

Kosovo fulfilled its part of the agreement that concerned us and opened its embassy in our capital Jerusalem and we, in return, recognised it

INVESTMENTS

With more than two billion euros invested in completed and ongoing projects, Israel is a leading real estate investor in the country

AGREEMENT

Actually “as we speak”, our government has just confirmed the American led proposal for agreement on the maritime boundary between Israel and Lebanon

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