Exclusive Interview

Building Bridges Between Cambodia and Israel (Last Part)

In an exclusive interview [last part] with Kiripost’s managing editor, Tharum Bun, Israeli ambassador to Cambodia, Orna Sagiv, talks about Israel's work in the Kingdom and wider region, water management, bilateral relations between the two countries - and her love of Khmer food.
Israeli ambassador to Cambodia, Orna Sagiv. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Israeli ambassador to Cambodia, Orna Sagiv. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Building Bridges Between Cambodia and Israel (First Part)

Tharum: Let's jump to another topic about ASEAN. Cambodia is chairing the regional block summit this month. One of the things to accomplish is a collective effort for ASEAN for post-pandemic economic recovery through investment and trade. What do you think Israel can do more?

Orna: Israel is not a member, of course, and also not a partner of ASEAN. Not because we don't want to, because we really want to, but because of political reasons.

There are still some members of ASEAN that do not accept that Israeli participation is like being officially part of any kind of group.

But Israel is very happy to work in this region. I will give two examples of us working with Mekong River countries. We signed an agreement, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), with MRC [Mekong River Commission] in Laos. With MRC, we are going to support one of the first projects that we will inaugurate in two weeks in Thailand. This is what the MRC decided. 

They deal mainly with water. We haven't discussed it, but water is one of Israel's expertise. In Israel, water scarcity has been very serious for many years.

The Israeli public, every day, look at the level in the news and say today, the only Sweet Lake water that we have is raised below the red line. Below the black lines, people say what are we going to do, you have to save water. You cannot waste water.

Even in the 50s, they started talking about it. Twenty years ago, it became much more serious, so Israel started to desalinate the sea water. 

Unluckily, unlike Cambodia, we don't have enough rain, so we started to desalinate. Today, Israel desalinates almost 80 percent of our water. That means we don't rely on the sky and rain, we desalinate it. It costs money.

We use a lot of desalinated water. Another thing is Israel recycles or reuses 92 percent of our water, meaning that almost every drop of water we use, we reuse, and we use it for agriculture. 

To be able to carry water from the reservoir to our houses without leaks, makes us happy.

The Mekong River, you have water. But sometimes you don't have water, and sometimes you have floods, sometimes you have water scarcity. So, we are happy to work with the Mekong countries. 

The other example is through Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS). ACMECS is a regional Mekong organization that Israel is going to be declared, in two weeks, as a dialogue partner. 

This is something new and we are looking for some activities, training, and capacity building, when it comes to water or to anything else that we will be required to do. 

You can see how we’ve moved forward with ACMECS, its original organization of the Mekong of the five countries. It wasn't here when I was here last time. Now, in two weeks, we are going to be declared officially. We are going to organize collaboration activities for people from Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam; for all the Mekong countries together.

We are happy to share our experience in energy, agriculture, water, and anything else.

Exclusive interview with Israeli ambassador to Cambodia, Orna Sagiv, talks about Israel's work in Cambodia. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Exclusive interview with Israeli ambassador to Cambodia, Orna Sagiv, talks about Israel's work in Cambodia. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Tharum: What are a few of the most significant matters the embassy has handled related to Cambodia so far? 

Orna: We touched on a few of them. First of all is the students. It was very important for us to keep the number of at least 400 students that go to Israel. We knew that might go up last year because of Covid because in many countries, students couldn't go. So, we had 600 or 650 right from Cambodia.

Maybe Cambodia has the highest number because I think the farmers are very happy to work with Cambodian students.

That's encouraging the programs to have more and more Cambodians, but we need to somehow balance. We cannot only have Cambodian students. 

One of the other things we're trying to promote is having some kind of MoU on foreign workers, Cambodian workers. This is still very early. We also have an innovation MoU. 

Another important thing we haven't touched until now is culture.

We try to reach some kind of an MoU on culture and education because we believe it's going to be a platform maybe for students to come, not only in agriculture but students that will come to Israel and learn maybe for their MBA or they want to study in Israel. 

Today, we have many programs in English. So, I say, why only go to the US or Britain or Australia? Come to Israel and you will get a very high level of studying in English. 

This must be a new credit initiative we are trying and, again, we try to have it as an MoU. This is another thing that is going to be between governments and then they can take it forward. 

One thing that is really new, today, we met with the Apsara Authority. Israel, like Cambodia, is an ancient country. We have many many archaeological sites that are very important to us. It's very important to preserve them well, and people come from all over the world to see those archaeological sites. 

We suggested today to the director of Apsara to find ways. We will connect the counterparts in Israel that we approached before our visit here.

We were very happy to start looking into details and see if we can create some kind of collaboration when it comes to archeology as well. 

We also try to promote connections all the time. Connections when it comes to innovation, trade, startups, and agriculture. So, you can see that we have a lot of things on the agenda. We have a lot to do.

Tharum: What do you hope to achieve for Israel-Cambodia relations during your tenure as ambassador?


I would like to have close relations between our governments and our people. If our embassy can be the bridge between those two far away places, we are happy to do that. If we can help to expose Israel to Cambodia and Cambodia to Israel, I will be very happy. 

It takes time. It's a process. It will not happen overnight, but all the things that I mentioned before and after four or five years before I leave, if I can see any progress, or a lot of progress, in all of them, I'm going to be very happy. 

In January, we have the Chamber of Commerce [CICC] organizing what they call a Cambodia sustainability event. They are going to have a conference and panel discussion. When we speak about sustainability, Israel has a lot to offer.

The most important thing is they are going to bring a chef from Israel, together with the embassy, and he is going to cook a sustainable dinner for leaders and others.

This is where we can say, let's discuss, let's exchange views on how to make the world, how to make Cambodia, how to make Israel, more sustainable, greener, and efficient when it comes to energy, and water use and usage.

Things are happening, it's just the beginning. 

There are Israelis here that when we speak about sustainability, and the same for me, they see it the same as innovation because it starts from innovation in a certain sector. 

There is an initiative not far from Phnom Penh where a lot of woods and forests were cut by farmers who need the money to support themselves. How to stop it? This is not good for the environment. It's not good for sustainability to cut the trees and forest, so you need to supply them with some kind of alternative. 

There is an Israeli professor in Japan who works very closely with the Ministry of Forestry and with the support of the embassy.

We try to build some kind of an alternative. For example, to have a greenhouse where farmers can have alternative income. They can grow vegetables and fruits in a much more sustainable way and then start replanting trees.

So when we speak about innovation, this for me is a great opportunity to show innovation in a very important field. I mean the environment is important to all of us.

Tharum: I think we covered everything. Unless you have anything else you’d like to add?

Orna: Thank you. Actually, it's about Siem Reap. According to the Jewish philosophy, there is the tikkun olam to make the world better.

We have an NGO in Israel that is called the Jewish Agency. They work with volunteers and with support from the Jewish diaspora all over the world. 

The Jewish community not only lives in Israel, but they live in the US, Europe and other places. They want to make the world better for all of us. 

They have projects on sustainability and education in five places around the world and in Israel. One of them is not far from Siem Reap in an area called the book [Bakong].

Tomorrow, we are going to see the NGO at the two projects they worked on. They work with children, but they also work with teachers. 

Educators are in five places around the world. As well as Siem Reap, in Ghana, Uganda, South Africa and Mexico.

The idea is really to learn about local culture, exchange views, and speak about water conservation.

How you teach it to children. How to make sure every child has accessibility to education. We have nine such volunteers living here from Israel.

We also work on training and capacity building about water and sanitation with an organization called Water for Cambodia that is stationed here.

We will meet the head of it today. Altogether, they have nine volunteers in six schools and they reach 700 students between the ages of 8 and 18, which is great. 

Before that we also had another project where the embassy twice donated money. It's called New Hope.

With CICC, I hope this is a new beginning in a way to connect not only with Phnom Penh but also with the important area of Siem Reap.

Tharum: Will you learn how to cook Khmer food?

Orna: Maybe, but that's a challenge. I need to buy a book or check on the internet. You know how to cook already, but the thing is, especially in Israel, you need to find the ingredients. Although today in Israel you have many more ingredients from Asia.

Last time we were in Phnom Penh, we were invited to lunch and that was the first time we tasted the food and it was very good. We really enjoyed it. So you're right, I need to learn how to cook it. I'll tell you when I come next time.