Israel's first ambassador residing in Vilnius, Amir Maimon, says Lithuania should be more active in inviting tourists from his country and step up cooperation in the fields of defence and high technologies.
Israeli Ambassador Amir Maimon. Photo by R.Dačkus

"Even it is very grey outside, you have a beautiful country. But I feel and sense that the average Israeli still didn’t discover Lithuania. And it will be for your side to take the necessary actions and promotion in order to attract more and more Israelis to come. Lithuania is not just Paneriai or the ghetto here in Vilnius. You have a lot to offer, but you need to ask yourself what can you do in order to be attractive to Israelis. The Israelis are well–known for their adventure characters. They like travelling, they like to discover new places," the ambassador told BNS.

According to data provided by the Statistics Department, the flow of tourists from Israel is on the rise. Over three quarters of 2014, nearly 12,000 Israeli tourists stayed in hotels in Lithuania, indicating a twofold increase year-on-year.

In Maimon's words, Israel can share its experience in the field of cyber defence and offer weapons to Lithuania's Armed Forces. The diplomat also pledged to look into the possibility for Lithuanian meat exporters to get permits to bring meat to Israel following enforcement of the ritual slaughter laws on 1 January.

Speaking about Jewish heritage in Lithuania, the ambassador said he was satisfied with "the Lithuanian government is doing a lot in order to preserve the memory of the Jews that were murdered during the Second World War" and the "very constructive and fruitful dialogue" with the Jewish community of Lithuania.

In comment of the Israeli stance to refrain from condemning the Russian intervention in Ukraine, Maimon stated that "Israel has very good relationship with both Ukraine as well as with Russia and we do urge two parties to find a peaceful solution to the conflict".

After submitting his letters of credence to Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė on Wednesday, Maimon became the first Israeli ambassador residing in Vilnius. Up until now, ambassadors to Lithuania resided in the Latvian capital Riga.

Why did it take so many years for Israel to open an embassy in Vilnius?

It was related to financial restrictions. When we formed diplomatic relationship with all three Baltic states, it was hard to tell at that time how the relationship will be developed. Unfortunately, we were not and we are still not in a position where we can open embassy wherever we want to. It was mainly us who delayed the opening of an embassy. The Lithuanian government very much wanted to see here an Israeli embassy. We have a say in Israel in Hebrew that it's never too late. I am very happy to be the first resident ambassador and I hope that in relatively short period of time you will forget that we had never had here an embassy.

After presenting credentials to the Lithuanian president, you visited the Paneriai memorial. Are you content with how Lithuanian authorities address the issues of Holocaust and Jewish heritage?

It was important for me to visit Paneriai because I believe that while it is important to focus on ways and means to enhance our bilateral relationship, it is also very important to remember the past and to make sure that horrible events will not be repeated. I believe that the Lithuanian government is doing a lot in order to preserve the memory of the Jewish that were murdered during the World War II. I am a great believer of the simple principle that you can always do better: the enemy of the good is the very good and the enemy of the very good is the excellence. I believe that we can always do better and I believe that the current government alongside the Jewish community are engaged in a very constructive and fruitful dialogue. My first impression is that all parties are at least at this stage satisfied.

In recent years and months, there have been warnings across Europe about growing anti-Semitism. Do you see dangerous tendencies?

Across Europe, yes. Unfortunately, we witnessed last month's attacks in Paris. Before that, there were attacks in Toulouse not far from the Jewish school and we also had an incident in Brussels in a museum. So yes, we are concerned about the new wave of anti-Semitism and we urge European governments to take necessary measures in order to make sure that such incidents will not be repeated anywhere.

Lithuania seems to have taken a more pro-Israeli position than many other European countries, like France, in dealing the issue of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Palestinian statehood bid, not least in the United Nations international bodies. In this context, do you see Lithuania as an ally within the European Union?

I would like to think that, generally speaking, we have many allies in Europe. We may have some differences on the question of what is the best way to progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but, generally speaking, we have good and healthy relationship with all European countries. I won't say that Lithuania's position can be defined as pro-Israeli. The fact that in the recent vote in the Security Council Lithuania decided to abstain is a signal that it is primarily for the two parties involved to resolve their differences. It is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to resume the peace negotiations and to engage in serious discussion to overcome the remaining differences.

Why is your government urging to stop the UN inquiry into possible war crimes in Gaza, and pressing ahead with settlements in occupied Palestinian lands that are seen illegal by majority of the international community?

With President Grybauskaitė
With President Grybauskaitė

We see the decision to form an investigation on the recent cycle of violence in Gaza as a hypocrisy. We were the side that was attacked. We didn't launch one day the Protective Edge operation just because our prime minister decided to launch the attack - he was forced to do so after days during which rains of Qassam rockets and mortars were launched towards the villages along the southern border. Let me just remind you that Israel withdrew from the Gaza strip in 2006. It was a unilateral action by the State of Israel. Israeli withdrawal entailed uprooting of Israeli citizens, uprooting of villages from the Gaza strip. We were hoping that once there is no Israeli presence in the Gaza strip, peace will prevail. Unfortunately, the Hamas - which is recognized a terrorist organization not just by the state of Israel but also by most of the European countries - took over the Fatah, the other major fraction in the Palestinian camp, and started to launch daily attacks. And this is a situation that every democratic country is not able to tolerate. Try to imagine that missiles will be launched from one of your borders, and your citizens will have only 15 seconds to find a shelter. As a result of these daily attacks, we had to react. While the State of Israel is using its ammunition in order to defend its citizens, the Palestinian side, Hamas side is using its people in order to protect its citizens. As a result, there was, unfortunately, and we are really sorry about any loss of life, especially those who were not involved, but majority were involved, were people that were engaged in terror activities, were engaged in launching daily attacks. And then it was brought up in the Geneva the Council of Human rights where unfortunately whenever the Arab group is bringing up a resolution or a proposal, they have an immediate majority, and that's how in the end of the day the decision to form a commission of inquiry was adopted. The number of resolution that was adopted are very few, but Israel - and I am not saying that we are perfect - but the number of resolutions (about Israel) for me looks very suspicious. And that's why we are opposing the establishment of such commission.

It was agreed between us and the Palestinians that the overall issue of settlements will be on the agenda when we will negotiate the permanent status of the territories. When we signed a declaration of principles in 1993, it was agreed that the hardcore issues will be remained for the last stage of negotiations. It was clear that if we would have started then in 1993 to negotiate about the hardcore issues - like question the Israeli settlements, question of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, water and others - we won't be able probably to get to the last stage of negotiations, and that's why it was decided to start from the issues that we believed at that time that it would be possible to overcome. As we had already some settlements on the ground, that was part of the Israeli government policy, they continue to build in the existing settlements, part of it it relates to natural growth, part of it relates to government's policy, the government was democratically elected, this is their manifesto, and that's why you see from time to time announcement about additional building and construction in existing settlements. If you check the facts, we did not enlarge the number of settlements but we did construct in existing settlements. The question of settlements was never an obstacle for peace. Myself as a young captain, I participated in evacuation of the city of Yamit which was the largest Israeli settlement in the Sinai peninsula and we evacuated the city in 1982 as part of the peace accord that we reached with the Egyptians. I mentioned before, in 2006 we evacuated quite a number of Israeli settlements from the Gaza strip, and I believe that we will be more than willing to do so in the future. My message to the Palestinians is very simple: if you don't believe that we are going to do it, call the Israeli bluff, resume the peace negotiations, let's meet. We agree to talk about the question of the Israeli settlement. Let's talk about it. And let's talk also about the other issues. It looks like the Israeli settlement issue become the only issue on the agenda, and this is not the case.

Your Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month said he wanted to reduce dependence on Western European markets. Does this mean that your country plans to shift away from EU markets towards Asia? What could it mean for countries like Lithuania?

It happens anyhow. Political statements are one thing - and I do respect my prime minister and other politicians' statements - but the facts are a bit different. The European market is the second largest export market after the US. It is true that we are looking for new markets - like Lithuania, your prime minister is visiting Oman. That's exactly what Israel is doing. It is only natural that a growing country with an economy growth like we have in Israel, which last year it was around 3 percent, is looking for new markets. And Asia is definitely one of the markets that we are focusing on. In recent years, we managed to develop and enhance our economic and trade relationship with India, with Japan. And, of course, China is a very important market to ignore. And, of course, part of my job and my team job here in Lithuania will be to also enhance Israel- Lithuania economic and trade relationship.

Lithuania is also looking to Israeli market. Lithuania legalised ritual slaughter and is looking for Israel market for its red meat. Is it likely that Israel will import Lithuanian meat after these decisions?

I'm not that familiar with this issue. I know that in the past there were some difficulties that are related to the requirement of the Israel market, the religious requirement. You probably know that when it comes to import of meat to Israel, the vast majority need to be kosher meat. And in order for a country to be able to export kosher meat to Israel, they need to get kosher certificates on the spot, not once when meat arrive to Israel. So around these questions there are some difficulties that I'm planning to investigate and to see if we can bring or lead to a situation where the local Lithuanian meat can get the necessary certification from the Israel rabbinical authority.

Which are the other areas where bilateral cooperation could be expanded between Israel and Lithuania?

When it comes to economic sphere, we can definitely look for new opportunities when it comes to life science, high-tech for example. Other sphere of possible cooperation is tourism. Even it is very grey outside, you have a beautiful country. But I feel and sense that the average Israeli still didn't discover Lithuania. And it will be for your side to take the necessary actions and promotion in order to attract more and more Israelis to come. Lithuania is not just Paneriai or the ghetto here in Vilnius. You have a lot to offer, but you need to ask yourself what can you do in order to be attractive to Israelis. The Israelis are well–known for their adventure characters. They like travelling, they like to discover new places. You can do a lot.

I read that it was decided several months ago to form a new unit in the Ministry of Defense, unit that will be responsible for cyber security related issues, so I proposed to the president that we can also cooperate in this area, as we gain some expertise. She seemed very thrilled about the idea and she even included it into the press release. So I was very happy to see it. I also believe that when it comes to issues that are related to internal security we can contribute. Once again, we gain some expertise when it comes to issues that are related to home defense, issues that are related to security of critical infrastructure. Just recently you launched a very important gas terminal. I don't know who is going to do the security, but this is definitely an area where we will be willing to cooperate and it will be for you to decide whether you are going to enhance the cooperation in this. Of course we can not ignore the defense. Once again, I read the chief of the general staff indicating that Lithuanian army is going to enhance their artillery capacity. So we are definitely the country, that is fifth or sixth when it comes to defense export. And we are a country that is engaged with quite a number of Western countries in defensive – military cooperation. We modernised quite a number of the other countries military capabilities. So this should be one of the areas where we should explore opportunities for cooperation.

You mentioned LNG terminal. Is it possible that Israeli would provide LNG for it in the future?

It is possible, everything is possible. But for us it is very important first to start exhausting the reservoir. So far we are engaged of talks, evaluations and we are still waiting to see the first cube gas running in the gas pipes. It will happen, but so far it did not happen. The major question is what will be the percentage of the overall reservoirs that the State of Israel would decide to export and what will be the percentage that the State of Israel will decide to use for domestic consumption. Because they already agreed that some percentage will be for export. I believe that in the beginning whatever would be channel of the pipes will be used for domestic consumptions. Only on the later stage we will start to walk about export and the sky is the limit. And Lithuania is definitely more than legitimate country for Israeli export.

Lithuania is not very happy with Israel's stance towards Russia in current Ukraine conflict. Your country has failed to denounce Russian annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine. Why?

I should ask you, why do you think that Lithuanian government is not very happy with Israel, because I met the deputy foreign minister and president, and they didn’t say anything about Israel position on this issue. Israel has very good relationship with both Ukraine as well as with Russia and we do urge two parties to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.

BNS
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