For the first time in the history of the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, a participant was given a special honor, the "Spirit of Davos" award, at a special ceremony before an audience of 1,000 people. President Shimon Peres received the prestigious award from WEF chairman Klaus Schwab for his contribution to the forum over 20 years. This year too, Peres held a marathon of meetings with national and corporate leaders to promote foreign investment in Israel.
"Many companies have come to Israel via Davos," Peres told "Globes" in an exclusive interview. "I was finance minister when Intel came to Israel, and gave them a $1 billion grant, for which I was criticized. These ties with Intel began here at Davos. Relations with Google also began at Davos."
In both his speech and in the interview, Peres repeatedly said that Israel was a wellspring of knowledge, technology, and innovation. "Israel is not the result of regulation or banking, but of imagination, daring, courage, and pioneering," he said. "It is the result of extraordinary people, skilled people seeking the impossible. There is no nation with so many talented children as the Jewish people."
"Globes": Israeli businesspeople came here to call for a settlement with the Palestinians in order to avoid a major boycott of Israel . They claim that, in contrast to the past, this is a popular boycott which can cause an economic catastrophe to Israel. Do you agree?
Peres: "They're right. Today, countries do not play an important role in the economy. Today, the economy is managed by multinationals. This is the largest economic force in the world. These companies have $1.4 trillion in cash reserves. Governments have budgets and debts, and these companies have money and they don’t need budgets. Governments work through parliaments, but companies approach people individually. Today, you don’t need a boycott from above, a boycott by countries; it's enough for a certain company to turn up its nose.
"We're a country of eight million people, and we live on exports. It's enough for a company to turn up its nose, like the Dutch water company, which halted its collaboration with Mekorot National Water Company . By the way, the Dutch government did not know about this. Economic vulnerability is now greater than the threat of war. Today, you don’t have to shed blood, that doesn't achieve anything, but economic sanctions are effective, such as in the case of Iran. Moreover, on security matters we could seek the help of the US. On economic matters, it cannot help us."
What do you say to critics in Israel who are angry about such a large delegation to Davos, and say that it is a waste of public money?
"I think that the criticism is right, and my advice to the critics is that Israel should only approach the poor," said Peres sacrastically. "Enough with the rich. The poor should invest in Israel."
Your term as president will end in a few months, and I assume you already know what your next job will be.
"I'm not looking for a job, but for something to do. We're an island in a big sea. Our job is to protect the island and to calm the sea. I will seek to calm the sea."
After his meetings at Davos, Peres can chalk up several achievements. His aides are proud of the results of his meetings at last year's Davos conference, such as Cisco System's participation in Israel's fiber optics venture. Peres proposed to Cisco CEO John Chambers that the company should build a nationwide fiber optic network in Israel to make Israel the first country in the world networked with fiber-to-the-home. A few months ago, Cisco officially announced the project, and that Beersheva would be the first networked city. However, Cisco has faced obstacles in Israel, and Peres met Chambers at Davos this year to solve them.
At the meeting, Peres and Chambers also discussed expediting the establishment of the Israeli cyber center in Beersheva . Peres asked to see results, and Cisco will apparently announce the establishment of the center in a few months. Following the meeting, the company is due to announce in a few weeks the establishment of a cyber programming team that will be based in Netanya.
Peres and Philips chairman and CEO Frans van Houten discussed promoting neuroscience. They agreed that Philips will establish in Israel an incubator for personal health. Philips will work with the Office of the Chief Scientist, and company representatives will visit Israel in a few months.
Other meetings did not yield concrete results, but were a kind of initial contact, were held with executives from Huawei (the world's second biggest company after Cisco in Internet traffic, serving 2.5 billion users, employing 150,000 people, and with an annual turnover of $40 billion) and Yandex (the popular Russian search engine). At these meetings, Peres discussed the establishment of R&D centers in Israel and investment in small companies, but the companies have no concrete plans at this time.