Yossi Bar: Israel is in love with Italian economic opportunities and culture.

Edoardo Bonatti
25 febbraio 2019


Yossi Bar is an Israeli journalist in Italy for I.P.B.C.- Kol Yisrael Radio and Maariv. He was the President of the Foreign Press Association over the 2006-2007 period.

Italian flag Testo disponibile in italiano (PDF – 170 KB)

The interview

Investorvisa.it: What is your personal story as a foreign press journalist in Italy?

Bar: I arrived in Italy in 1983, although various interruptions led me to return repeatedly to Israel for family reasons. Initially, I was a correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth, one of the leading Israeli newspapers as well as for the public radio. Then I got married, I had my daughter Naomi, and I decided to stay, even at the expense of my salary.

As a member of the Foreign Press Association for many years, and thanks to your tenure as President, you were able to observe your colleagues in Italy: what do you think is the most widespread perception and attitude towards Italy among foreign journalists?

Most of my colleagues are happy here, a lot depends on their personal background and their country of origin, but they have generally found a welcoming country and are glad to be correspondents in Italy. The figure of the correspondent has changed a lot in these last years. In the past, a correspondent was sent to Rome to cover the whole of southern Europe and, sometimes, also for Middle Eastern countries, given Italy’s importance as a strategic lynchpin and international centre of interest. With the increasing importance of the internet, and therefore the collapse newspapers’ sales, and the proliferation of fake news, the role of the journalist is going through a crisis (at least for those employed in printed media – radio and television continue to resist to this trend). Journalists often would like to remain as foreign correspondents but with the decline in sales and revenues, newspapers tend to abolish the figure of the permanent correspondent, preferring freelancers or local journalists. This, sad as it may be, brings down the level of investigations and journalism. European neighbours are obviously very interested in Italy, while most remote countries are mainly interested in global news, such as those related to the Vatican, which could affect their countries.

Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs Moavero visited Israel on 28 January, meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. During the visit, the Minister recognized that, despite not perfect, the relationship between Italy and Israel is more than solid seventy years after the establishment of diplomatic relations, which anniversary was celebrated on 6 February. What is your personal assessment of the political relations between the two countries?

Relations have seen an improvement over the last twenty years, and we can consider their current state as very positive. It is difficult to understand the foreign policy of this government, given that Italy is currently very focused on its internal problems. A part of the government, the right wing, is certainly more politically close to the Israeli government and is in favour of maintaining warm relations with Jerusalem, while the other part seems colder. This makes the government’s attitude unclear, not only on Israel but also on the Middle East as a whole. It must be said that even if it is difficult to interpret this political state of affairs, economic and cultural relations proceed anyway, building on what has been done in the past. We could say that bilateral relations are going through a period of economic and cultural flourishing: for example, Italy is the first rank country in the eyes of Israeli tourists.

As far as economic relations are concerned, we can observe how, in 2016, Italy is the eighth country for exports to Israel while Rome is the thirteenth destination for Jerusalem’s exports. What future do you see for the Italian-Israeli economic relations and in which areas do you believe there is room for improvement?

Economic relations have experienced a strong development in the past, reaching almost 4 billion in trade, with Italy registering a trade surplus. Israel remains a very open country to international trade and in particular to that with Italy. With regard to imports into Israel, a remarkable component is represented by the raw materials used by approximately seven hundred Italian restaurants in the country that use them to run their business. Another very active segment is linked to the military industry and aeronautics overall: in these days, with the support of the Italian Ministry of Economic Development and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Polytechnic University of Bari and the Technion of Haifa signed a cooperation agreement to collaborate in the fields of aerospace technologies, cybersecurity and the internet of things establishing a base for collaboration between Israel and Apulia in hi-tech sectors; Leonardo has recently delivered a contract for eight helicopters. Other classic sectors related to Made in Italy, such as furniture and footwear, are highly appreciated, and we consider the companies operating in them as avant-garde, both in their technology and in design.

The Italian manufacturers are an ideal partner for Israeli companies, which are usually more committed to research and development, and represent a privileged option to establish new productive synergies. Do you think that in the future Israeli companies may commit themselves further to the Italian market through direct investments or acquisitions of their Italian counterparts?

There is a very advanced technology exchange. Many Italians come to Israel to learn new techniques and import new technologies into Italy, especially in the medical field and in the military one. A less well-known fact, mainly for diplomatic reasons, is the equally strong interest of Israelis citizens towards Italy and its expertise for essentially identical reasons. Given the very strong ties between the high technology industries of the two countries, it could be said that there we are going through a real honeymoon phase between the two industrial systems. Even the joint infrastructure projects are going through a positive moment: just think that Italy will import gas from Israel, which has identified a considerable deposit off its coasts, with a gas pipeline that will arrive in Italy via Greece and Cyprus. Bilateral investments can already boast a solid foundation and are experiencing a phase of further development, but much will depend on the Italian government stability and on the political relations between the two countries: an Italian government hostile to Israel, considering, for example, the latter as a non-democratic country, could very well reverse this positive trend.

Israel has the second-largest number of start-up companies in the world after the United States, and its Silicon Wadi is the reason Israel earned the Start-Up Nation nickname. Even in Italy, innovative start-ups are starting to represent an important engine of the national economic development: do you think that we can establish profitable synergies between the two production systems?

Among the start-ups of the two countries, there is very strong cooperation, I know personally that one learns from each other, there is no cutthroat competition as there could be in other cases. For example, the after-mentioned agreement between the Polytechnic of Bari and the Technion of Haifa will help Italian and Israeli startuppers to work together. Italy is a friendly country, a very open port for Israel and, through the sharing of knowledge and the cooperation of start-ups, it will be possible to realize the great potential still present for the development of industrial and economic synergies between the two countries.

Israel can also boast a very high number of venture capital companies very committed to supporting innovative national companies. Considering how the return on Israeli investment abroad is higher on average do you think that it is possible to see these companies venturing outside Israeli national borders, for example in Italy?

Israel and its companies are always looking for new market outlets abroad and Italy is a key partner, both as a destination for domestic companies wishing to absorb Italian know-how and as a bridge to other states that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Even among the member states of the European Union, Italy is deemed, together with Germany, among those closer to Israel. Given this, I believe there is plenty of room for Israeli investments in Italy.

Italy and Israel are also united by a fruitful cultural partnership and exhibitions dedicated to great Italian artists will be hosted in Israel for the seventieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. How is Italian culture seen in Israel, and which are its aspects deemed as the more fascinating ones?

Italy is seen as a creative, high-class country with which Israel is happy to entertain cultural relations through the organization of art exhibitions or the participation of Italian films, or joint Italy-Israel productions, in local film festivals. Italian television series and music are also very popular: the former are often translated into Hebrew and broadcast on national television while the latter can boast a deeply rooted tradition. This year Israel will host the Eurovision Song Contest, and it is thought that the Italian winner of Sanremo, Mahmood, who is very appreciated for its sounds very unlike the classical Italian melodies, can be successful. When we look at food and wines, Italy is one of the most loved countries in Israel, as evidenced by the number of Italian restaurants, with wines that, despite the competition of local labels are very popular. Architecture, design and, in a more broad sense, Italian inventiveness conquered a long time ago the market and the population of Israel which, also thanks to the current good economic condition, sees in the Made in Italy a symbol of classy products and beauty.

Italy has adopted a visa regulation for non-European entrepreneurs that allows those who invest in Italy at least half a million (in a start-up) or one million (in a company) euros to obtain a special visa for investors. Patrons who donate at least one million to the preservation of Italian cultural heritage can also request this visa. Do you think that a similar initiative could be appealing to the Israeli public?

I believe it can help. It would be a great start to then think of adopting more incentives and simplifications necessary to stimulate mutual investment. I hope that we can continue on this path and that the Italian political situation does not lead the government to abandon these investment attraction policies. I also hope that the Italian banking sector will remain stable as possible problems could represent a source of systemic instability that may harm the investment climate.

The visa is intended for natural persons and therefore cannot be requested following investments made by a private equity company. Do you think it would be desirable to revise the law to widen the beneficiaries’ audience and thus stimulate large companies to invest in Italy to enjoy the benefits of the visa?

I think it would give a boost to companies too. I think that, with greater incentives and bureaucratic reductions, not only directed to individual entrepreneurs but also to companies, Israeli investors will look with greater interest to Italy as a country in which to invest.

The cultural proximity between the two countries is also aided by the strong presence of an Italian Jewish community. Do you think this could be a factor for Israeli entrepreneurs or patrons, the latter perhaps interested in preserving the noteworthy Jewish cultural heritage in the country, to look at Italy with greater favour?

I am sure there is an interest, but I believe that cultural donations for the preservation of Jewish cultural heritage come mainly from members of the Jewish diaspora rather than from Israeli citizens. Of course, even the latter part in a small part could contribute, but American Jews, also through their contacts and ties with Israeli citizens who can act as a link, are the ones interested the most in similar operations of patronage for the conservation of the cultural heritage of diasporas in Europe.

Complementary to the visa for investors is the norm that offers a subsidized tax regime for those who transfer their tax residence in Italy, with a flat tax of 100,000 euros a year on income earned abroad that can also be extended to family members for an additional 25,000 euros a year. Given the Israeli tax regime, do you think that entrepreneurs can benefit from such a provision?

I do not know how much it can affect Israelis’ investment choices, also when we consider that this measure came into force a short while ago, because the taxation in Israel is high, but it is not very far from the Italian one. Obviously, tax breaks of any kind would help bilateral trade and investments. I believe that the communication used to publicize these initiatives supporting foreign investments can be improved. Israeli entrepreneurs and, I believe, those of other nationalities, do not know these measures enough, due to a communication deficit that must be overcome if they want to reach the widest possible audience.