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From the East, good shall come

Remember the sparse diplomatic relations and limited trade between Israel and countries such as China, South Korea, Japan, India, Singapore? No longer; now, they come to our aid
Illustrative. Workers unload a cargo plane at Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, March 31, 2020. The cargo plane carrying more than 13 million surgical masks has arrived in Greece, as part of a major shipment of medical supplies from China. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
Illustrative. Workers unload a cargo plane at Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, March 31, 2020. The cargo plane carrying more than 13 million surgical masks has arrived in Greece, as part of a major shipment of medical supplies from China. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

On the seder night, my 94-year old grandmother sat alone, with but a lone seder plate and glass of wine for kiddush. She made aliyah to Israel from Libya over 70 years ago, and never imagined that she would one day have to celebrate the seder night this way; without her children, her grandchildren, her family. Her only company at the seder table was her dedicated caregiver, originally from Sri Lanka.

As we all know, a friend in need is a friend indeed, and if we look where the majority of medical equipment being shipped to Israel is from – protective gear for medical staff and for the broader population, respirators, experimental medications, essential materials for testing kits and disinfectant equipment – we will find Israel’s friends in Asia standing by its side.

Countries such as China, South Korea, Japan, India, Singapore answered our call, via Israel’s ambassadors deployed throughout the region, and extended a helping hand. It is worth remembering that they themselves are still coping with the virus, and exporting their own equipment abroad is not to be taken for granted. Regardless, leaders, as well as foreign and health ministries in Asia, did not hesitate to approve the export of this critical equipment to us in Israel.

Countries in Asia, who were the first to grapple with the coronavirus, have demonstrated an impressive coping ability in protecting their populations, despite considerable hardships and challenges. On top of that, their willingness to extend a hand during this difficult hour not only to us, but to all of mankind, is remarkable. Experts in Israel are learning from the experience of China, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Singapore, and other places in the region, and have been conducting ongoing communication with their counterparts in Asia.

During these trying times, we saw great importance in repatriating our citizens stranded around the world in time for Passover. We were touched by the extent to which our friends in Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand, were ready to assist in this mission. Thanks to their flexibility and understanding we managed to, literally, open the skies that were quickly closing around the world, obtain travel permits through restricted areas, secure visa exemptions, landing permits, and much more.

The consular division at the Foreign Ministry, and our devoted diplomats around the world, including in Latin America, Africa, Europe, and many other places, have been working hard around the clock for over one-hundred days to bring Israelis home.

The ability to bring such essential medical equipment, and to open borders to bring Israelis home, is a testament to the tremendous developments that have taken place in Israel’s relations with Asia. We’ve come a long way since the days of sparse diplomatic relations and limited trade. Today’s political and economic relations, cultivated over many years, are proving invaluable in this critical moment.

An “exit strategy” from the crisis is being much-discussed nowadays; who will be the first to go back to work in Israel? We at the Foreign Ministry are drafting an exit strategy vis-a-vis Asian countries. Our assessment is that Asia will be the first region to see light at the end of the tunnel, and that Asian economies will play a major role in re-igniting the world economy, as was the case in the 2008 global financial crisis.

Before the coronavirus crisis, Israel’s trade with countries in Asia made up one-third of its total trade. It might be difficult to envision at the moment, but Asia remains vital to the Israeli economy — from incoming tourism, through FTAs, to labor agreements critical to Israel’s construction and agriculture sectors.

We at the Foreign Ministry will contribute to Israel’s economic recovery. We must support the Finance Ministry in getting the unemployment rate down to what it was before the crisis as well as assist in attracting foreign direct investment to Israel, expanding exports, and opening markets – new and old. Asian countries will be among the first to be there for us.

About the Author
Gilad Cohen is Deputy Director General for Asia and the Pacific at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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