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A leaked phone call reveals the potential partnership Israel and Estonia could establish

The ‘start-up nation’ and ‘e-Estonia’ have much in common when it comes to digital innovation, cybersecurity and their identities.

June 18, 2021 - Daniel Frishtik - Articles and Commentary

Author: esfera / Shutterstock

In an attempt to convince Pfizer to use Israel as a laboratory for vaccination, Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly said his country had an ultra-efficient healthcare system, a small population and historic records going back decades. Whilst this is all very impressive, the company’s CEO responded, “but so does Estonia”. Finally, and after some 30 phone calls, Israel’s diverse population proved to be the clincher.

This conversation, which was revealed a month ago in the newspaper Israel Hayom (Israel Today), has since attracted several follow-ups. Some focused on the characteristics of Israel that led to the decision, whilst others have discussed the political gains made by Netanyahu. At the same time, the Estonian Broadcasting Company chose to compare the current vaccination rates of the two countries, inevitably raising questions as to what if Estonia was chosen. Despite this, one angle has yet to be discussed: the similarities between the countries. It seems that it took an international medical company to finally point out the fact that the countries are very much alike. It could be argued that Estonia and Israel are almost like ‘sister-states’ or ‘lost sisters’, yet to find each other.

Similar, but far-away

“We are both young states with remarkable internal social dynamism, a strong orientation to innovation” and “a geopolitically charged geographical location”, says Sulev Kannike, Estonia’s ambassador to Israel. Indeed, in almost every respect – economics, defence, governmental features – the countries appear to mirror each other. Both countries’ high-tech industries easily compete with those of far bigger states. Their innovation rates also reach far beyond their relative size. It is not for nothing that one is known as the ‘start-up-nation’ and the other as ‘e-Estonia’. Both also share a constant fear of their intimidating neighbours and top performances in cybersecurity matters. Even when it comes the diversity of their populations (the Estonia-Pfizer dealbreaker), the similarities are clear. Both Israel’s Arab and Estonia’s Russian residents account for around a quarter of each country’s respective populations. By almost any measure, the countries’ resemblances are striking. Every field calls for cooperation almost intuitively. So how come both countries seem to know little about each other, let alone have a significant, special relationship?

To explain this, Kannike uses a creative metaphor. “Estonia and Israel are like two first-class, technologically very advanced and well-equipped airports on different continents”. “But just as the technological similarities of the airports do not guarantee and predict exactly the frequency of flight connections between them, the same is true about our relationships”. Another reason for this lack of partnership is economic. Hagit Ben-Yaakov, Israeli ambassador to Estonia, explains that when Israeli businessmen choose to go to Estonia, they usually use the country as a springboard to the entire EU. “Let’s put things in perspective”, she says, “They are really small”.

It is not that relations are weak. When asked to describe them, Ben-Yaakov uses phrases such as “great” or “deep friendship”, and even words such as “charming”, “attentive”, “open-minded” or “friendly” to describe Estonians themselves. Ben-Yaakov has provided many examples of how good the relationship is between the two states. For example, she has noted the abundance of Israeli films at Tallinn’s festival, scientific collaboration and the country’s resolution to label Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. Kannike has expressed similar views, stating that “Taking into account that… we have had our Embassy in Tel Aviv for not more than ten years we have done well”.

Apart from direct diplomatic channels, joint forums also serve to strengthen the bilateral relationship. One such forum, Digital Nations, focuses on e-governance. Its participants share best-practice to boost governmental digitalisation. When in office, Estonia’s former prime minister Jüri Ratas described the organisation as “tight-knit”. A paper by the Bennett Institute observed that many forum officials consider their counterparts to be friends and regularly share ideas on Whatsapp. Estonia and Israel co-founded the group, along with three other states. The forum has since doubled in size to include ten members. These groupings help to reinforce the bilateral relationship in a novel fashion.

Overall, it seems that relations are not cold but they could be far warmer. Even Ben-Yaakov, who has constantly praised the relationship, admits that economic relations could do better. She sees potential especially in cyber and digitalisation, which she has called “Estonia’s thing”. The ambassador has argued that “The two countries miss their potential and should do more”. Of course, the pandemic did not help these matters. Kannike has stated that “Due to the COVID-situation there has been more than a year-long gap in the bilateral high-level visits”. Both diplomats have mentioned postponed meetings. A non-resident ambassador located in Helsinki, Ben-Yaakov herself has not been to Estonia for a while, using Zoom instead once or twice a week. Apart from the pandemic, the Israeli political stalemate also plays a role in the bilateral relationship. “We are doing what we can out of the non-existent budget”, Ben-Yaakov says, referring to the fact that Israel has yet to pass one for two years now.

A change of seasons

Notwithstanding these challenges, a wind of optimism is now blowing in bilateral affairs. The EU whitelisted Israel last month, granting its citizens a free pass to enter its territory. Given that most countries are still blacklisted, the Israeli free pass may well help develop the relationship, if only for lack of alternatives. The new government Israel finally established may enable relations to get back on track. Kannike has already suggested (before it was sworn in) that the two states help reschedule a 3+1 meeting between Israel and the Baltic states’ prime ministers. This would be the second meeting of its kind. It was supposed to take place in Jerusalem last year but has been postponed. Ben-Yaakov has asserted that “there better be an ambassador there”, implying that further decisions could make for direct improvements in the relationship. Kannike has also observed that “there will be new presidents in both of our countries… this summer”, promising that “the Embassy will certainly facilitate the first contacts between them as soon as possible”. Broadly speaking, he believes that the relationship will only get better: “I am sure that with each passing decade the people of Estonia and the people of Israel will discover each other more and more”.

One way or another, the two states’ current relations could prove fertile ground for an improved relationship in the future. Whether it be it in defence, cyber, innovation, tourism, or digitalisation, the potential for mutual benefits is overwhelming. Forming a special relationship built on similarities, just like the Nordic Council or Five Eyes, may well prove a good strategic call for politicians on either side. After all, both countries could use a like-minded ally right now.

Daniel Frishtik is an Israeli freelance journalist curious of the Baltic Tigers. He’s the founder of Beynoni Vamala magazine and an entrepreneur. 

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