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Visa policy blocks plan to bring entrepreneurs to Israel

Posted on December 21, 2015
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Dec. 10— The Interior Ministry’s continuing restriction of entry visas for foreign “experts” and entrepreneurs is blocking the Chief Scientist’s new plan to bring them into Israel. And industrialists say they are not surprised.

The Economy Ministry, which includes the Office of the Chief Scientist, announced the new “innovation” visa program Oct. 22 and said it would advertise the first call for Israeli companies wishing to host foreign entrepreneurs in early November.

‘New Ideas’

The two-year visas—the first long-term visas ever issued for non-Jewish professionals—would allow foreign entrepreneurs “to develop new technological enterprises in Israel, and their visas will be extended if they decide to establish start-up companies in Israel,” the ministry said in the announcement, adding that entrepreneurs’ businesses would also be eligible for state financial support.

“Foreign entrepreneurs who come to Israel will bring new ideas and different methods of working and thinking, which will help expand Israel’s world-leading entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem even further,” Economy Ministry Director General Amit Lang said in the statement.

The program would have two stages, Anya Eldan, the Economy Ministry’s director of early stage and incubator programs, told Bloomberg BNA in a Nov. 2 telephone interview, the first to “come spend time developing your idea in a supportive framework, like an Israeli incubator or accelerator.” After that, a business program could be submitted to the OCS and, if approved, the entrepreneur would be eligible for government support to open a start-up and for expert visas allowing the entrepreneurs and other personnel they might need from abroad to work in Israel.

‘Indefinite’ Delay

The program’s launch, originally scheduled for Nov. 8, has been repeatedly postponed. Advertisements were ready to run on Nov. 23 but were cancelled the day before. A week later, the delay was called “indefinite.”

“Problems with the Interior Ministry are holding this up,” an Economy Ministry official told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 29. “It has been very difficult with them. They are not ready to implement the visas.”

A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, the government body responsible for issuing visas, told Bloomberg BNA in a Nov. 4 email that two changes had been made to expert visas to “make the procedure easier.” Experts from countries that do not require tourist entry visas can now apply for working visas online and can stay in Israel for 45 instead of 30 days.

Industrialists, however, say the two changes will do nothing to relieve the bottleneck.

‘Running Out of Geeks’

Concerned by the need to protect its Jewish future, Israel strictly limits non-Jewish immigration, which also limits Israeli companies’ access to foreign talent. On Oct. 18, Microsoft Israel R&D Center General Manager Yoram Yaacovi warned the Israeli Advanced Technology Industries, an umbrella organization for Israel’s high tech and life science industries, that Israel is “running out of geeks” and that unlike other advanced countries it cannot “import” them.

The many well-educated Jews who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, including many scientists and engineers, are also beginning to phase out of the workforce, Yaacovi noted.

“The visa issue has definitely been a drag on developing business ties between Israel and China,” said Benjamin Peng, business director of Shanghai-based Yafo Capital, a venture capital fund investing in Israeli start-ups, who hopes that the new program will allow foreign students in high-tech tracks at Israeli universities “to stay after they finish their studies and work in Israel at least for a while.”

For non-Jews, work visas are hard to get and almost impossible to extend beyond five years. Permanent residence is all but barred, so that foreign experts—just like less-skilled workers who come for jobs in construction, agriculture and elder care—know they will eventually have to leave.

Israeli Business ‘Suffering’

And “Israeli business is suffering” for it, Michael Decker, head of the Administrative Law Department at the Yehuda Raveh Law Firm in Jerusalem, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 10.

“I know the ministry announced that it would make changes, but in practice I have seen none, and we’re angry. The Interior Ministry’s system doesn’t work,” Decker said, noting that getting a work visa can take six to eight months and that its conditions do not address such corporate development needs as bringing in the same international consultants several times a year.

Experts who come to Israel repeatedly for short visits “are turned back by Interior Ministry officials at the airport if they say they’re coming for work. So they either say they’re tourists or just don’t come. And that harms Israeli business,” Decker said.

Although Decker declined to name specific companies for fear of attracting the Interior Ministry’s attention, he did note the case of one international CEO who was refused entry until his Israeli partner came to the airport with a 100,000 shekel ($26,000) guarantee that the stay would be temporary.

The policy is damaging “not just manufacturers and not just high-tech but all companies that need to market their services abroad,” Decker said.

Israeli companies that set up branches or partnerships in other countries can also be prevented from bringing in their foreign workers for local training or to coordinate operations with R&D taking place in Israel.

If the OCS program is implemented, it will “encourage entrepreneurs to open their start-ups in Israel instead of in places like Silicon Valley,” Eldan said. “Israel has a strong high-tech ecosystem and a large venture capital community,” and approved enterprises can receive significant support through the OCS.

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