|Ambassador Vapni - says Mabuhay from the Land of Smiles|
The current Israeli Ambassador to the Philippines, Mr Zvi Aviner Vapni, was born in Petach Tikva in 1963. From 1982 to 1985 he served in the Israeli Defense Forces. He then went on to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Jewish and European History and a Master's Degree in European History from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
While studying for his degrees, Vapni led tours through Jerusalem with a focus on history and archaeology. He also lectured at the Open University, which is Israel’s biggest distance learning university.
“And then it happened. I made a major important decision almost accidentally.
I opened the newspaper one day and saw an ad inviting people to submit their candidacy for a cadet course in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I got intrigued, I applied and the rest is history.”
In 1991 he joined the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the School of Diplomacy. He then served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Israel in Sofia, Bulgaria between 1993 and 1996. “It was a very difficult time for Bulgaria. There was organised crime, a weak government and a lack of basic things like water and electricity. It was a very interesting time to be there and see this painful transformation.”
From there he became the Deputy Consul General in the Consulate General of Israel in Atlanta for two years. The consulate covered the southeastern region of the US and Vapni was in charge of following local politics, as well as building the relationship with Christian and African American groups.
In 1998 he returned to Israel and went back into the North American Division as the Head of Congressional Affairs. “It was a fascinating position because I escorted many (US) senators and congressmen when they came to Israel and I was busy following legislation.”
In 2000 Vapni headed back to the US, but this time as Deputy Consul General in the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles. “Lost Angeles itself was a different league,” he recalls. His role was focused on the Latin community and how they would affect the future of American politics. However, “I came there two weeks before the Democratic Convention of 2000, followed by the famous election of 2000, followed by the impeachment of the Governor of California who was replaced by another Governor, the election of 2004 and the re-election of President Bush.” Vapni also dealt with the July 4, 2002 terror attack at the El Al booth at LA airport.
After five years, Vapni returned to Israel with the desire to serve in a different part of the world and Asia was appealing to him. “So when Manila came about, I submitted my candidacy.” On 17 August 2007 he presented his credentials to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as the Ambassador of Israel to the Philippines.
Vapni is on the last year of his four-year appointment. When asked about his impressions about the country, he said it has been very interesting and pleasant at the same time. “What has made the Philippines so special is the people. I’ve never encountered people who are so easy-going and happy, in spite of the fact that they have to deal with many challenges. There is no animosity and no anti-semitism. There is a lot of willingness to hear and to get exposed to Israel.”
As ambassador, he would like to see more business between the two countries. “The potential is there, but I think both countries lack complete knowledge of one another.” In his view, business people in the Philippines don’t consider Israel as a destination for business and tourists see the country as the Holy land and a place for pilgrimage only. The same applies to Israelis, who only recently heard more about the country through the show Survivor, which was taped in the Philippines.
“I would like people to get acquainted with the Philippines, with the business opportunities that exist here and the beauty of the country,” he says. “Both of those things could be developed much beyond that of what we have now. The Philippines is considered a poor country but 10% of its people can afford Israeli products and a flight to Israel. That 10% is 9 million people! So there is a market for Israeli products and I would like to see this developed.”
The trade volume between the two countries is about US$200 million. There are a few Israeli telecommunications companies working in the country successfully, while cosmetic and clothing companies have also done well. “Slowly you are seeing more Israeli products. I’m trying to encourage this and make people aware that when it comes to consumer goods, it doesn’t require you to establish a brand or send people. The trick is to find the right partner and that is the reason we are here, to help with match-making between producers and Asian companies that may be interested.”
Vapni has invested a lot of effort in the Mashav Centre for International Cooperation. One major project has been centred on the island of Luzon, were they are “helping farmers make their crop more varied and less susceptable to parasites and floods.” The only pre-condition is that if farmers are successful, they have to share their new knowledge with other farmers.
Israeli experts visit every month and there is a constant connection between experts in the Philippines and those from Israel. The project has been a big success and the government is interested in expanding it to a bigger area.
In the coming year, Vapni together with the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health, have committed to help reorganise the country’s medical service in remote and rural areas. His embassy has be come very well known around Manila for their cultural activities. “We have brought a lot of singers, dancers and movies, and people have come to expect this. Culture can bridge distances better than anything else. It is an international language spoken by all.”
And when it comes to bridging distances, Vapni has worked hard during a transition time in the Philippines, ushering in the new administration of President Benigno Aquino III. The current president is the son of previous President Corazon Aquino. “It is a very symbolic thing for them to go back to a very high point in their history, where the people have been able to get free again from oppression and dictatorship.”
According to Vapni, the new administration is bringing a will to change and deal with corruption, poverty and other major issues facing the country. However, the ambassador notes that foreign relations are not on the top of the new government’s agenda. “What I do now is meet people, get to know them and acquaint them with the relations between the two countries.”
Historically the two countries have enjoyed very positive relations. “Those are the things I’m trying to familiarise people I meet with and those are the things that are a base for our future discussion and understanding.”
Two of the many examples of the history between the two countries include: when President Manuel Luis Quezon y Molina allowed prosecuted Jews from Europe to find a safe haven in the Philippines during WWII, and when on 29 November 1947, then President Manuel Roxas, supported the vote for partition, which allowed for the creation of the State of Israel.
Of his time in the Philippines, Vapni says, “This has been an amazing experience.” People in the Philippines tend to smile a lot and they do it without thinking about it. “Only after a few months I realised this was contagious. We are smiling more and are influenced by this ability to be happy.”
The ambassador is married to Limor Aviner-Vapni and they have two children.
Interviewed by Jessica Zwaiman Lerner
(Issue October 2010)