Israeli Minister of National Infrastructures Silvan Shalom and Chinese Ambassador Zhan Yongxin in Tel Aviv on Feb. 11
Golan Hazani

BEIJING â€" For Yair Sarussi, chairman of Israel's Bank Hapoalim, China is getting closer by the day. "You can feel the Chinese everywhere," he told Calcalist. "Almost every week I meet three or four Chinese companies interested to come to Israel."

The Chinese presence is felt mainly in Israel's high-tech sector â€" with investment in venture capital, or directly in companies. According to several technology-sector sources, investors from China are gradually replacing the Americans.

But relations are also developing in research and education. Universities and colleges engage in bilateral cooperation and Israeli students visit Beijing and Shanghai to familiarize themselves with China's business world.

One such recent tour in China allowed graduate students in real estate and business administration at the Netanya Academic College to have first-hand encounters with corporate leaders China. The meetings allowed a glance into Chinese business culture and a taste of the hurdles foreigners face when seeking to operate in China or when trying to convince Chinese companies to come to Israel.

But above all, this tour allowed an introduction to the country and an understanding of its immense power alongside its many weaknesses. The tour also offered a chance to understand what's behind the Chinese interest in Israeli businesses with the latest wave of acquisitions and construction contracts. Is it part of a global takeover in a bid to break out of the domestic economy, or is it an aid instrument for developing countries? Probably all answers are correct.

The infrastructure sector was the first to attract the Chinese to Israel. The China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) is a state-owned giant whose daughter companies register annual incomes of at least $20 billion. In Israel, CCECC was the contractor for the Carmel Tunnels, a series of road tunnels in Haifa, as well as part of the winning bid for constructing Tel Aviv's light rail.

The visit to CCECC's offices in a posh Beijing neighborhood was the highlight of the tour. CCECC is a gigantic corporation that operates in the field of trains and train infrastructure, as well as bridges and tunnels. Overall, CCECC's income is estimated at several hundreds of billions of dollars every year and it has 300,000 permanent employees. It has built most of the railways in China, including the high-speed train from Beijing to Tianjin and the one from Beijing to Shanghai.

In Israel CCECC is supposed to build the railway between Tel Aviv and Eilat, but this project has not been approved yet. So far, the Carmel Tunnels is CCECC's first and only project in the West, since it hasn't been able to penetrate into Europe.

"In the West they don't need us," says Wang Lei, a senior CCECC executive.

Wang mentioned bureaucracy and challenges from environmental organizations, as well as insufficient workforce, as hurdles in doing business in Israel. Nevertheless, he says Chinese companies adapt themselves rather quickly and easily to the legal and planning limitations in each country. "We don't have restrictions like you do," he added.

Silky way

CCECC is also a key player in realizing the Chinese government's New Silk Road, a project meant to reconstruct the ancient Silk Road trading route that began during the Han dynasty (200 B.C.-200 A.C.), and delivered goods from China to Europe.

The New Silk Road will start in Xian, in central China, stretch westwards through Gansu and Xinjiang provinces, and from there to Kazakhstan, northern Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. From Istanbul, the route will go through the Bosporous Strait and will then continue on to Europe via Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Germany and Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong (right) and Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the first Meeting of China-Israel Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation in Beijing in January â€" Photo: Wang Ye/Xinhua/ZUMA

The Chinese plan to establish land and maritime routes along the Silk Road, with ambitions to be present across almost all of the Eurasian territory.

CCECC's first project in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's largest city, was a relatively small project of 150,000 square meters, but it was a significant milestone for the company's strategy of competing with large western construction firms.

Yigal Karni, CEO of Israeli construction company Meggido, says that during his visit to Tanzania he found plenty of local hostility towards the Chinese. "They told me, "beware of them â€" they took over Africa,"" he says during the tour. "I think this hostility comes from the Chinese decision to employ low-waged local prisoners."

And indeed, labor conditions are a real concern, as the Chinese government is still struggling to understand its implications. The rapid demographic change, with a huge rise in university graduates has led to a quick saturation in white-collar professions and a severe shortage of blue-collar workers.

Alibaba opens

Many choose to work in state companies, where employment is more stable. In private companies, dismissals happen much more easily, whereas in state firms employees lose their jobs only in cases of corruption, violence, or adultery. Work disputes are solved through either companies' internal mechanism, sponsored by the employer, or a municipal arbitration mechanism.

Meanwhile, in another sign of Israel-Chinese cooperation, Israel's finance minister is planning to bring 20,000 Chinese construction workers in a bid to alleviate the country's housing crisis.

Also, the first fund China's e-commerce giant Alibaba invested in outside the country was the Israeli Jerusalem Ventures. Most of the investments in Israel's high-tech companies come from Chinese state-owned funds. Until several months ago, any Chinese company that wanted to make an overseas investment of more than $100 million was required to have a government approval. But now, bowing to pressure from the companies, the threshold has been raise to $1 billion.

And yet, the Israeli-Chinese cooperation is anything but obvious. Suspicions, sometimes mutual, as well as Israeli regulations, can be a deterrence. This is why negotiating and sealing the deal between China's international food and beverage company Bright Food and the Israeli dairy firm Tnuva took more than two years.

For the Chinese state-owned firm, coming to Israel was primarily seen as a chance to supply China with knowledge in the dairy industry â€" though there are also the potential future revenues from an expensive acquisition of 8.6 billion shekels ($2.24 billion for 56% of the shares).

And yet, it's a different story with private companies. Fosun is a private firm with ambitions to expand to the West. Sure, they want to bring to China insurance innovations from Portugal, the U.S. and even Israel's Phoenix. But unlike Bright Food, Fosun's motivation is getting a profitable deal and establishing a foothold in the West. Israelis who interacted with Fosun officials describe them as practical, sharp and Western-oriented.

In a good way

"The Chinese don't understand how little Israel, whose entire national population is merely one-third of the city of Shanghai, produced 12 Nobel laureates," says Israel's ambassador in Beijing Matan Vilnai. "Chinese leaders tell me â€" you control the world. Unlike in other places, here it's said with appreciation."

Vilnai, moreover, foresees a significant rise in Chinese tourism to Israel. "They're not scared by wars. During Operation Protective Edge, China was the only country whose numbers of tourists to Israel actually increased."

And there is of course, the trade and travel in the other direction. IronSource, ICI, Verint, Orbotech, Nilit and many more are Israeli firms who operate in China. The Israeli general consulate in Shanghai opened a business center that offers its offices to Israeli companies to help them interact with locals.

"Israelis who arrive here without patience, from a position of "we will show you how to do it better," will fail," says Inbar Grebler from the consulate's economic and commercial affairs department. "When working with the Chinese you need a lot of patience, long-term vision, and well, also deep pockets. They are suspicious and it takes time to build their trust."

Grebler notes the importance of knowing the local culture, including seeing ways that the strong government, which sometimes deters foreign investors, can also be an advantage. "Sometimes getting an approval for a project which would take years in a western country could be done in just a few days."

Gadi Ravid, dean of the business administration school at the Netanya Academic College, has been visiting China for years. "It's hard working with the Chinese," he says. "You need to learn about them, to carefully check them. There are quite a few Israeli companies that had bad experience here and won't be coming back."

But ultimately, Chinese leaders are eager to try to innovate. "The standards here are eventually not the same as in Europe," says Ravid. "In China they understand that this development will happen only if there is honesty and fairness, and this is one of the reasons they are putting such a strong emphasis on developing higher education."

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Pomp And Pirouettes: When Ballet Stars Bid Farewell

On June 11, the prima ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato bid farewell to the Paris Opera, under the gold roof of the historic Palais Garnier. It's an obligatory passage for Parisian ballet dancers of a certain age, a moment that is often happy, always dreaded and sometimes salutary.

Ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato performing at her adieux
Eleonora Abbagnato Official Instagram Account
Cecilia Delporte

PARIS — With one last look at Chagall's enchanting fresco, at the teachers who watched her grow up, at the stage that saw her blossom, Eleonora Abbagnato took her final bow. Never has a star ballerina's farewell been so dramatic, as her big exit was postponed by three cancellations due to a strike, and then the pandemic.

"I'm always positive, I think that destiny does things well," she says in her dressing room a few days before her "adieu." "I knew this evening would eventually take place!" This artist, who wanted to model her last dance on Le Parc by Angelin Preljocaj, ended up dazzling the crowd in a tribute to Roland Petit, which nicely echoed her career.

"He is someone I knew at the age of 10, so it was important to me to perform a ballet by this choreographer. The last time I danced Young Man was for Nicolas Le Riche's farewell, I was four months pregnant! It all began with Roland, and it all ends with him." The ballerina has lost none of her taste for the stage, but there are traditions that forge an institution: At the age of 42, each Opera dancer must leave the premises with a final au revoir to the public and the company.

"It's probably less painful than in other foreign companies, especially Anglo-Saxon ones, where there is no age limit but you are summoned to be told that you are no longer in the shape you were when you started out," says the former star Agnès Letestu. But how will this particular evening be remembered, as a rite of passage or the beginning of a new life? "The farewell is both a moment of extraordinary love with the hall, the orchestra pit, the backstage area ... and at the same time the turning of a page in the history of this institution. Even if the phoenix always rises from its ashes through the appointment of a new star," says Brigitte Lefèvre, the Paris Opera's dance director from 1995 to 2014.

No faux pas when choosing the last dance

This uniquely talented artist deserves the same exceptional ceremony created for the departure of Elisabeth Platel in 1999 and Carole Arbo two years later, which was televised for the very first time. For these kinds of events, the star's personal life comes into play — family members are present in the room, children occasionally come on stage. A perfectly choreographed protocol is followed to a tee, mixing various speeches with the arrival of the Minister of Culture; sometimes a special distinction from the Order of Arts and Letters is awarded. Moments of grace are sprinkled throughout the evening, such as the improvised dance between Aurélie Dupont — the director of dance at the time — and the departing star Marie-Agnès Gillot. The festivities continue into the night, charged with excitement and emotion.

These farewells are planned two or three years in advance when the time comes for the dance director to curate the future program. Aurélie Dupont, like Brigitte Lefèvre before her, likes to ask the star which ballet they prefer as their parting performance and which partners should accompany them.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning.

"There are some dancers who don't want to say goodbye because they don't like it, because the program doesn't suit them or because they don't feel fit enough," says Agnès Letestu. "I wanted to leave the Paris Opera with La Dame aux Camélias. I had talked to Brigitte Lefèvre about it. Except my farewell was scheduled before the ballet was programmed, so I had to find another one, but I did not agree. So I proposed to her to come back and dance it one month after I left the company, which was quite unusual."

Among the most requested works are the legendary ballets Giselle and L'Histoire de Manon. "The stars like to start with love stories that end badly. Everyone wants a ballet with real drama, in two or three acts, rather than a little pas de deux," says Aurélie Dupont. Dupont's first choice, La Dame aux Camélias, had already been scheduled two years earlier for the farewell of Agnès Letestu, so she settled on Manon. This work, heavy with meaning, was Dupont's big return to the stage after a serious knee injury in 1998, when she feared she could no longer dance.

Eleonora Abbagnato performing her final "adieux" at the Paris Opera

Like going to the guillotine

As for the brilliant Karl Paquette, it was with Cinderella — a ballet dear to his heart — that he retired at the Opéra Bastille, Paris' second opera house while many dancers prefer the old charm of the more famous Palais Garnier. "The story is funny, the ballet very narrative — one of the most beautiful successes of Nureyev. I loved the golden costume, the scenic effects, the finale of the grand pas de deux. The strongest moment was my entrance on stage in Act II to great applause, even as the musicians continued to play," he recalls.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning, like when Marie-Agnès Gillot cried heavily before her final step onto the stage. On that fateful day, Agnès Letestu says she felt a very special sensation, strengthening her senses, from her vision to her hearing. "Everything was multiplied tenfold," says Letestu who, a few months earlier, had the feeling of going to the guillotine. "I was very stressed four months before, I was afraid of hurting myself and not being able to dance, of not being up to it, of not enjoying every moment, of crying," says Aurélie Dupont, whose farewell was finally a calming moment. "I especially remember the applause, people were shouting, standing — it lasted more than 20 minutes. And this love is only for you."

I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion!

Nicolas Le Riche, now director of the Royal Ballet of Stockholm, evokes a "very strong feeling of corporation, of belonging to an institution that we celebrate at the same time." He was the only artist to bid farewell not to a ballet, but to a "special evening" of total freedom, mixing pieces like L'Après-midi d'un faune by Nijinsky and Béjart's Le Boléro. On stage, tributes were paid in his honor by prestigious guests such as singer Matthieu Chedid and actor Guillaume Gallienne.

"I found this repertoire, which transcended the ages, very moving. I received a magnificent note from Nijinsky's daughter. It's an evening where everyone is allowed to be moved and to live these emotions, except the person who is leaving. I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion, otherwise, I would have taken a step on stage and collapsed!" he recalls. How long did it take him to prepare such a spectacle? "I feel like answering in the manner of Coco Chanel, who made her hat in two scissor strokes. 'But it only took you two minutes?" says a disappointed customer. 'No, Madam, it took me a whole life," she replies. The same way I drew on all that I lived through," says the dancer.

Group photo of Paris Opera dancers in white tutus dancing in front of the Palais Garnier, with placards in protest of the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age

Paris Opera dancers perform in front of the Palais Garnier to protest the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age — Photo: Maxppp/ ZUMA

To each their own swan song

While Laëtitia Pujol hesitated a long time before making her farewell, hoping to leave discreetly, others end up with departure full of pomp and circumstance, sometimes to their surprise. "It's a moment you think about all the time without really thinking about it. I certainly wasn't looking forward to it and wanted something intimate. This was the opposite," says Karl Paquette. "The director of the Paris Opera at the time, Stéphane Lissner, wanted to leave on the symbolic day of December 31. "I was doubly pressured because the farewell was broadcast in the cinema, and each of my movements was immortalized. On the last day, you are in a particular state of conditioning because you are saying goodbye to 25 years of career and nearly 42 years of life. You have to protect yourself."

When the farewell came, it was a relief.

Only Benjamin Pech experienced his farewell, an evening in February 2016, as a liberation. And for good reason: "I had a hip injury in 2014. I was diagnosed with rapid degenerative arthritis. To remedy it, I needed a hip replacement. My farewell was scheduled for 2016, so I decided not to have the surgery and continue until then. For two years, I held on by dancing practically on one leg and had to turn to a repertoire that was no longer athletic but theatrical, with compositional roles that opened up other perspectives. Isn't a dancer above all someone who comes to deeply impact the spectator? When the farewell came, it was a relief," he says.

The star had chosen to dance alongside Sylviane, an 84-year-old spectator and one of his lifelong fans, who was present during rehearsals, but unfortunately became ill on the day of the performance. Pech took his leave on a program that included Le Parc by Preljocaj, the very piece that gave way to his injury: "I have come full circle."

Bidding farewell to the word "adieu"

Shortly after his or her performance, the future retiree must pass on their dressing room to another star, a moment that is "both very sophisticated and archaic. There are the great speeches, which say that this house will always be yours, but in reality, it becomes otherwise," says Brigitte Lefèvre. "You close the door, you leave and it's over," says Eleonora Abbagnato. But how do these artists project themselves into the future? "What is traumatic is that we are heavily drilled since we entered the dance school at 8 years old, with a professional outline where everything is already decided. How can you exist professionally when you have garnered such admiration, even fascination until now? At 42, most people are in the middle of their career, ours is coming to an end," says Benjamin Pech, who has become ballet master at the Opera of Rome, directed by Eleonora Abbagnato.

It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens.

While many stars go on to create or run a company, many experience a profound period of confusion. "I was secretly hoping that someone would call me for a position, that I could be of some value, but it didn't happen that way," explains Nicolas Le Riche. "I had already enrolled at Sciences Po for schooling [in management and leadership]. I had to create my own opportunities."

To remedy this uncertainty, Aurélie Dupont now offers support for company members, offering them a skills assessment and training beyond dance. In the future, Nicolas Le Riche would like the word "adieu" to be replaced by the idea of celebration. "It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens." Because under the gold of the Palais Garnier, the stars are eternal.

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