Exclusive Interview

Building Bridges Between Cambodia and Israel

In an exclusive interview with Kiripost’s managing editor, Bun Tharum, Israeli ambassador to Cambodia, Orna Sagiv, talks about strengthening ties between the two nations, innovation, agriculture and her first impressions of the Kingdom of Wonder.
Orna Sagiv talks about strengthening ties between the two nations, innovation, agriculture and her first impressions of Cambodia. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Orna Sagiv talks about strengthening ties between the two nations, innovation, agriculture and her first impressions of Cambodia. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Based in Bangkok, Orna Sagiv is Israel's ambassador to Thailand and Cambodia. The veteran diplomat, who has been working in Asia for nearly three decades, is on a mission to build stronger ties between Israel and Cambodia.

During her second visit to the Kingdom, Israel's ambassador sat down with Kiripost’s managing editor, Bun Tharum, for an exclusive interview where she talks about how she fell in love with Southeast Asia, her impressions on Cambodia, building Cambodia’s human capital in agri-tech, Israel as a startup nation, and more on collaboration on commerce, technology, and innovation.

Official diplomatic ties between Cambodia and Israel date back to 1960. Twelve years later, Cambodia became the first Asian nation to open an embassy in Jerusalem. However, following the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge and the country’s armed conflicts, the bridge between the Southeast Asian nation to the Middle East was broken.

It was not until 1993, two years after the Paris Peace Agreement, when the two nations restored official relations. Currently, without an embassy or consulate in Phnom Penh, the embassy of Israel in Bangkok handles foreign affairs and matters related to Cambodia. Based in the Cambodian capital, the Israel-Cambodia Chamber of Commerce (CICC) also plays an active role in cementing the bridge.

Key highlights during this one hour, face-to-face conversation conducted in early November at FCC Angkor by Avani in Siem Reap:

  • Before her appointment as the ambassador to Thailand and Cambodia
  • Orna Sagiv’s impression on Cambodia
  • Israel and Cambodia’s partner in agricultural capacity building
  • The ambassador's views on Cambodia’s entrepreneurial spirit and how to synergize with Israel
  • Israel and ASEAN
  • Key achievements and her vision for Cambodia–Israel relations

[This is the first of two parts. The interview was slightly edited.]

Tharum: When you first received the news that you were appointed as the Israeli ambassador to Cambodia with residency in Bangkok, how did you feel?

Orna Sagiv: First of all I was very happy. I've been a diplomat for almost 30 years now and I feel very lucky because all of my diplomatic postings were actually in Asia and the Pacific. I started in Taiwan in Taipei studying Chinese. Later on, we moved to Beijing.

Our second posting was in Australia and the Pacific, also responsible for New Zealand. After that we were in India, in Mumbai, for five years. For me, it was only natural to have an important posting in Southeast Asia, in one of the ASEAN countries. I felt that I was very lucky being chosen to be the ambassador to Thailand and Cambodia.

According to our system, you are not just getting appointed. You have to compete. It's not that someone actually asked me, do you want to go to Thailand?

I had to compete for this ambassadorship. So after I got it, I felt even luckier because I really got what I wanted and until now I feel lucky for this. It's like competing with 15 other people. It wasn't like one or two. I feel really lucky, very happy living in Bangkok and coming here [Siem Reap] for a visit.

In Israel, after we graduate from high school, we go to the military service. Even girls and boys. After military service, we feel very tired, after two years for girls, and three years for boys. We feel very tired and many of us go overseas for backpacking.

After my military service, together with my boyfriend who is now my husband, we went to Thailand, India, and the Philippines. We were there for more than four months and I fell in love with this region. After three years, I joined the foreign ministry.

Then I asked myself, what do I want to do and where I would like to serve? I kept telling everyone that my passion is Asia, I want to study a language, and I want to serve in Asia. I was lucky enough to be sent to Taiwan to study Chinese and then to move to Beijing and go all over Asia.

I never wanted to go to any other region. I never wanted to go anywhere else in the world, so I feel really very lucky. We love Asian food.

Tharum: Cooking is one of your favorite hobbies, according to one of your tweets.

Orna Sagiv: That's true, although I have to say that I've been spoiled since we came to Thailand. I have more help at home, so I cook less as there are people that cook better than me. So I give up very easily. I love cooking. In this region, the food is very tasty. I love spicy food.

Tharum: In Cambodia, what really impressed you the most?

Orna Sagiv: First of all, I didn't know much about Cambodia. Before I came here, it impressed me very much the way Cambodia dealt with Covid[-19]. It was just when we arrived last year, most of the region was still closed. There was no tourism and not many vaccinations. But in Cambodia, I was really surprised that most people were vaccinated three, four times.

The government really insisted on having the population vaccinated. From the way I look at it, it really helped Cambodia in its recovery plan. I was really impressed by the recovery plan that the government presented.

I also have to admit that the first time we came to Phnom Penh, I had to present the credentials to his majesty the King. I was also very much impressed by his majesty the King. By the palace. The whole thing was so beautiful and smooth, and we had a very nice conversation.

I would say overall I'm really impressed by everyone that I meet here, people are very interesting. They also are interested in Israel. I find a lot of similarities between our two countries and the people. I keep on thinking about the potential, what else can we do together or how we can put the two people and the two countries together? That's fascinating and cool.

Tharum: From my meeting with Deng Dara [Secretary General of CICC], I learned that on your first trip to Phnom Penh in late June and early July, you met many Cambodian high-ranking officials during your tight schedule.

Orna Sagiv, Israel's ambassador to Thailand and Cambodia. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Orna Sagiv, Israel's ambassador to Thailand and Cambodia. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Orna Sagiv: Yes I met officials and industrialists. The economic and trade potential between our two countries is great. Dara is part of the CICC. Since we don't have an embassy presence here, we work a lot with the Chamber of Commerce. It's a group of Cambodians and Israelis that reside in Phnom Penh that are very very active.

They recently brought, in the past few months, two delegations to Israel. One is about agriculture, the other is about innovation and startups. This is where I see the present and the future.

It is important to create connections with the government. But, it's also important to create relations with the heads of the industries here, the trade, and to think together how we can really expose each other.

I will tell you another thing that is impressive. I found that both of the people of our countries are very similar. They have entrepreneurial spirit, a young economy, but really looking to innovate, looking to technologies, trying to take both of our countries further to the future.

We must think about agriculture, the high-tech industry and all that.

Tharum: Israel is Cambodia’s partner in agricultural capacity building. What are your thoughts on this? What can be done more strategically?

Orna Sagiv: Agriculture is an extremely important sector because it speaks about food security, about securing people's capability to eat in the next few years. If we clean everything, we really talk about making sure that all of the citizens of our country are able to have enough food for their sustainability.

In Israel, we are a small country. We don't have natural resources. Our land is airid. We have desert. So when Israel was established, we couldn't really provide the farmers, who were 65 percent of our population, and could not provide enough food for the population. We had a population of 600,000 people and there was not enough food.

What Israel has developed throughout the years by way of necessity, out of scarcity, the government had to provide food to the population. So what do you do? You develop human resources, new technologies, innovation in food, in agriculture, in the whole food industry.

Israel is today one of the most advanced countries when it comes to agriculture. By the way we don't call it agriculture, we call it agro-technology because today it's all about technology. When you go to Israel, you will see that you can grow potatoes in the field, but even then you have drip irrigation, you have special fertilization. Everything is organized, everything is computerized.

The weather is a very important factor. You don't just keep hoping or keep everything for the lack or anything for the luck. If it's raining, if it's not.

At the end of the day you want everything to be really organized. If you go to an Israeli dairy farm, you know that Israeli cows produces more cows and more milk than any other cow in the world.

Now if you go into an Israeli automated dairy farm, I see people coming and they are shocked. They say no, why is it like that? Maybe it's dirty. No, everything went through studies. The cows eat exactly the amount they need to eat and they take showers, so it will not be too hot. They go in automating milking two to three times a day.

Everything is organized, everything is done with research.

We have the whole ecosystem, farmers, the government, the private companies, and the academy. They are all interconnected and solve problems and deal with the challenges of farmers.

It goes in kind of a circle. Now we are very happy because we know the meaning of scarcity.

We are happy to share some of, or most of, what we know with our friends. I think that the student program from Cambodia is a great opportunity to expose the capabilities.

What we learned is that the students that come from Cambodia are one of the best in actually coming back to Cambodia and implementing what they learned for their families, communities, villages and towns.

We saw that it really works well because at the end of the day you take students every year. We have 350 to 400 students. You take students from the best agricultural universities in Cambodia. It's not enough that they sit in class A and learn. When they go to Israel, they have in-the-field experience. They work with farmers, they see, they touch, they do everything like the farmers. Then when they go back to Cambodia, they have a lot of experience.

It's important for us to have rotations. So, like three months, the student can work in a dairy farm and then for three months he can grow dates [palm] in the Jordan Valley and then work for three months somewhere in the desert or somewhere else such as in a greenhouse.

It's really important for us to expose them to as many technologies and techniques as possible. It's really a very successful program. I'm really looking forward to have more and more students coming every year

Tharum: During your first official trip to Phnom Penh in late June and early July, you raised a point about recruiting Cambodians as agricultural laborers in Israel? Can you elaborate more?

Orna Sagiv: It's a long process. There is an interest from both of our countries. It's a process. It doesn't happen within one night. It needs the approval of the government. Our country went to elections yesterday and today we still don't have the final results of the elections. So I guess after the new government will come into power, this will be one of the things that we will raise. But definitely we started moving that forward and hopefully we will see results. It's important also to the Cambodian side that it was raised with me. Hopefully we can take it forward, but it will take time.

Tharum: Aside from agriculture, let's talk about what you’ve just mentioned: entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology. All of these topics are Israel’s strengths and must be very helpful to a country like Cambodia. What do you think, will there be or some activities that have been going on right now?

Orna Sagiv: Since Israel doesn't have any natural resources or almost no natural resources, human resources have always been something very important to develop for the government and also for the private sector.

You can see the amount of venture capital funds that operate in Israel. It shows you the strength of the Israeli economy and Israeli innovation. We have hundreds of multinational companies that operate in Israel. Human resources is something that has been developed in Israel.

Israel has the highest level of investment into R&D from our GDP. We have almost five percent. The only country that is close to us is South Korea. When I say we, it's not only the government, it's also the private sector.

If you don't invest in R&D, if you don't keep running, if you stand, you will just go back. So you need to keep investing in order to keep this technological advantage.

Also, in Israel we are known as the Startup Nation. This is how we like to call ourselves in recent years. We also call ourselves the Unicorn Nation because we have so many companies, almost a hundred companies, that are considered to be a unicorn, meaning that those startups in Israel are very strong. They are also looking for partnerships with companies and with other startups or bigger companies around the world.

As I said at the beginning, the sense of entrepreneurial spirit and innovation I feel here in Cambodia as well. We feel that it's not enough to speak only about agriculture as part of the partnership with Cambodia, we really want to take it to the next step.

This is why the CICC took a delegation in September to Israel that comprised people from government and private companies.

They had an amazing trip. They met with the government officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from The Innovation Authority, from other ministries and the Export Institute. They met a lot of startups and companies in Israel and discussed possibilities. First of all how to do it, what it is and how Israel is doing it, but also where partnerships are possible.

What I know is that even today from both of our countries, we are negotiating some kind of an Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on innovation between the Innovation Authority in Cambodia and the Innovation Authority in Israel.

It can be a very strong and important platform for collaboration. I hope it's going to be accepted soon by our two governments.

Tharum: So, is this a new flagship R&D center that will come out very soon?

Orna Sagiv: I don't know if it will be very soon. I don't want to say, but this is in the process. We need to provide the tools and to be some kind of a bridge between the countries.

If we have an MoU on innovation, this can be some kind of platform, so companies from both sides can find it easier and can get some incentives to work together.

Cambodian companies do not know enough about Israel. Israel companies and Israel's private sector do not know enough about Cambodia.

This is why we bring the delegations. After these two delegations went to Israel for innovation and agriculture, we know there are about six Israeli companies that plan to come here soon. They will come here and they will meet companies here.

By the way, we spoke about agriculture but we did not mention that there is a beautiful Israeli Cambodian dairy farm, Kirisu, which is not far from Phnom Penh. It's a mutual investment, a beautiful product, a beautiful project, and it brings innovation.

At the end of the day, when we speak about innovation, innovation can be everywhere. It can be agriculture, it can be in cyber, it can be in space. Everything is innovation, so we need to find the right sectors and create the connections, and this is what we're trying to do.

Tharum: As the ambassador of the Startup Nation, you mentioned the entrepreneurial spirit Cambodia, what are the key ingredients for Cambodia to build itself to become a startup Kingdom?

Orna Sagiv: I do not need to give advice to Cambodia. Cambodia is doing very well. You have a very dynamic leadership that takes you forward.

What I can suggest is to say, let's be partners. I really do not believe in one side coming and saying let me teach you.

We come together to the table. I learn from you and you learn from me. I learned from your experience, what worked for you, and what didn't work for you. I can share my experiences of what worked for me and what didn't. Maybe we can sit together and we will find a new project. Maybe not. Maybe we will just learn from each other's experience. But I really believe in give and take. Not, I'll tell you how to do this and that.

That's why I said that there is an entrepreneurial spirit here. People are young, your economy is kind of on a trajectory that goes up. There are many elements that push you. The fact that the country really healed from Covid in such a way you have so many things that are working for you.

Building Bridges Between Cambodia and Israel (Last Part)

Cambodian Delegation of Entrepreneurs to Visit Israel

Bridging the Startup Gap Between Cambodia and Israel

The Hunt for the Holy Grail in Israel to Build Cambodia As a Startup Kingdom