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[Herald Interview] Vaccination only way out of COVID crisis: Israeli envoy

Akiva Tor, Israeli ambassador to South Korea, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Jongno-gu, Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Akiva Tor, Israeli ambassador to South Korea, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Jongno-gu, Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Vaccines are the only way of the coronavirus pandemic and an aggressive inoculation campaign is essential, the Israeli ambassador to South Korea says.

Israel -- where 59 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated as of this week, far outstripping the rest of the world -- has lifted most of its COVID-19 restrictions.

“Early on a decision was made that Israel would pursue several tracks vis-a-vis several pharma companies and would be willing to pay above market cost,” Ambassador Akiva Tor said during an interview with The Korea Herald, noting that cost would be far less than what an unvaccinated economy would have to pay.

Tor said that a relatively small population and a highly digitized universal health care system helped Israel speed ahead with the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. Israel’s population stands at about 9 million; Seoul, Korea’s capital, has about 9.6 million residents.

Tor added that social distancing rules -- which were hard to maintain in his country, where spikes in infections continued to occur despite extensions -- were not reliable.

The Korean government, which supported an aggressive distancing campaign early on, has been criticized for a slow vaccine rollout as Seoul grapples with bringing down daily infections. Only 4 percent of Korea’s population was fully vaccinated as of this week.

Tor said Israel was seeking to return to normalcy and put the economy back on track. Under a three-week pilot program that ends June 15, the country is reopening its borders to a limited number of group tours as long as each visitor presents a negative coronavirus test. As many as 600 tourists will be let in.

“We would like to get tourism back on track as much as possible,” Tor said. The envoy then referred to the latest economic partnership between Korea and Israel in May, when they signed a free trade agreement.

Tor described the trade deal as the work of willing partners seeking a “natural synergy in which exceptional Israeli innovation meets Korea’s industrial scale, tech production and marketing genius.” Korea is the first Asian country to sign an FTA with Israel.

One example of that “natural synergy” is cooperation between Israel Aerospace Industries and Korea Aerospace Industries, a Korean defense firm that recently revealed a prototype of its first homegrown fighter jet.

The 4.5-generation warplane is a cheaper and less-stealth alternative to the US-made F-35, which is the most advanced fifth-generation jet.

“KAI, for example, is producing stealth fighters and they are partnering with IAI, which is producing specific components that would go into those systems and make them extremely cutting edge,” Tor said.

He added that Korea stands to gain much more from extending its tech cooperation with Israel and its business connections in the Arab world, at a time when Israel is improving relations with neighbors such as the United Arab Emirates, which became the third Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel last year.

The envoy discussed the Israel Defense Forces, which many say epitomizes Israeli innovation as those young Israelis usually go on to become entrepreneurs in global tech industries. Israel ranks third in the number of founders of Nasdaq-listed firms, after the US and China.

“Plenty of high-tech successes comes from people who served in the combat ranks and later attained tech education,” Tor said, commenting that Israeli youth are enthusiastic about their service because it makes them feel that they are giving the country what it needs.

Like Korea, Israel’s military conscripts its young recruits. But unlike Korea, conscription in Israel applies to both men and women. A growing number of disaffected young Korean men have recently called for an equal conscription, or for an all-volunteer military open to both men and women.

“Israel is its army,” Tor said, calling the IDF a “citizens’ army,” which he said would not turn into an all-volunteer armed force because the current conscription system, which applies to both men and women equally, attracts a diverse talent pool to build on the country’s expanding influence.

The security landscape in the Middle East is another reason Israel cannot risk letting its guard down, the envoy said, referring to the latest clashes over the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinians. Last month, the two sides agreed to what was a potentially tenuous cease-fire after the fiercest fighting in years.

“For security reasons it’s impossible for me to go down and talk to the protesters,” the envoy said, referring to an anti-Israel protest held earlier by Arab residents in Seoul. “I still think that we have to engage with them.”

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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