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‘Israel is a startup paradise’

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Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Amid the socioeconomic protests and wide publicity of Israel’s numerous social problems, something different has been set in motion – something that signals progress and the future, like Minister of Finance Yuval Steinitz’s decision to increase the Israel Space Agency’s budget by hundreds of millions of shekels, a move welcomed by Minister of Science and Technology Daniel Hershkowitz.

“We’re already a superpower and leader in the field of light satellites,” Hershkowitz said in a special interview to Calcalist. “We mobilized the prime minister and the president for this cause because they are both men of vision and have a grasp of technology.”

The minister says Israel’s current government has been putting greater emphasis on science.

“The trend has changed. Not only has the government stopped cutting budgets, it is now constantly increasing them. From the moment I got the science budget, it has climbed from NIS 70 million to NIS 350 million and it’s still not enough. But you can look at it from a different angle – Israel has the largest R&D investment in the world relative to its GDP – 5%. The Swedish and Americans fall behind with a 3.6% investment of their GDP. This attests to Israel approach – we’re a startup paradise.”

Addressing some of Israel’s latest initiatives, Hershkowitz points to the Jewish state’s growing focus on the space industry.

“The global space industry generates about $250 billion a year. We presented them with a business plan whereby with an initial NIS 500 million investment (roughly $140 million) we could reach a $2.5 billion stake in the earnings. But it was clear that we couldn’t obtain such numbers right off the bat so we decided on a NIS 180 million investment for the first two years.

“One example is a satellite that uses heavy lenses to photograph earth from an altitude of several kilometers and weighs two and a half tons. The US was able to cut that weight in half. An Israeli observation satellite with equal if not better abilities weighs only 250 kilos. This is just one area in which Israel has the lead and we intend to keep improving,” the minister said.

‘China worships Israeli science’

Hershkowitz says he is extremely proud of Israel’s initiatives and believes that the Jewish state’s standing in global science contributes to curbing international animosity toward the country.

“The world is governed by interests. We have no natural resources whereas our enemies have an abundance of them, and thereby elicit a majority at the UN,” he said. “Whenever I’m abroad, I get the sense that the relations between Israel and other countries stem from scientific interests. The Chinese literally worship Israeli science.”

“Most of the world cares little about the conflict and the entire world enjoys Israel’s high-tech and agricultural research and development,” Hershkowitz said. “We are the world’s leading exporter of science and technology; IBM’s largest research center is located in Haifa.”

The minister added that scientific interests can help Israel overcome the current diplomatic impasse in relations with the Palestinians.

“Since Israel has so much to offer, we must reach economic and scientific cooperation. The Palestinians won’t open up but they could enjoy our scientific achievements, in agriculture, for instance,” he said. “Israel and Jordan cooperate in the field of pest control – it’s a necessity because pests need no passport and when both sides collaborate, both benefit. There is no reason why the region shouldn’t develop like Israel has.”

Hershkowitz, who is a member of Israel’s National Religious camp, holds a PhD in Mathematics and has published over 80 scientific articles. He also continues to volunteer as the Rabbi of the Ahuza congregation in Haifa where he teaches Judaism classes, among other subjects. He said that he has no trouble combining his religious views with his ministerial duties.

“These are not two distinct realms. My way of life is part of who I am and this integration is natural,” he said. “I sometimes bring up religious issues during government sessions and I receive excellent response.”