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Israel - Business Culture

Greetings and Courtesies

Among Israeli men a warm handshake is the customary greeting, and good friends will sometimes accompany the handshake with a friendly pat on the back or shoulder. Non-Slavic Israeli males do not embrace or hug upon greeting, while Slavic ?migr?s will exchange the bear hug and cheek kisses common in Eastern Europe and Russia. Orthodox Jewish men, recognized by their characteristic dress, will not touch women in public, and visiting females should not try to force the issue during a greeting.

Israelis typically stand quite close to one another when speaking. Personal space is at a premium, and the proximity of an Israeli interlocutor can border on an "in your face" approach. They also will strongly gesticulate with their hands but only touch each other lightly on the arm as they talk. The Israeli cultural style of speaking dugri (bluntly) can be very intimidating to the uninitiated, but its only threat is in its directness. However, because Israel is so full of settlers from various backgrounds and countries, visitors will see all types of greetings and behaviors on the streets of any Israeli city. All are acceptable within reason, and Israel is one of the easiest countries in the world in which to be a visitor.

Business cards are exchanged, and those bearing a Hebrew translation will gain favor in Jewish circles. Israel is not a very formal place, so the varying ranks of businesspeople mix freely and call each other by their first name. Visitors from more formal societies may be taken aback by how quickly Israelis assume the right to be informal. Even very young people call recently introduced elders or executives by their first name. Shocking perhaps, but harmless.


Business Ethic and Framework

Israel has survived in a constant state of political turmoil, and it was founded by a group of people who were simply fed up with being pushed around. Consequently, the Israeli business style often borders on the rude and demonstrates a permanent distaste for the weak or indecisive. They are very aggressive negotiators and demand quick decisions. Israelis are unabashed about extracting every possible concession from a counterpart.

Such an unsubtle "one-style-fits-all" approach can be considered strength and an easily exploited weakness. When in a selling position, Israeli managers will bluster but will soon concede to the demands of the buyer if met with a stony resistance. When buying, the Israeli hard-line approach can be quickly countered with early concessions followed some time later by counteroffers.

Once contracts are signed, Israeli managers prefer to provide (and receive) maximum service at warp speed so as to get on to new deals. Because no one is sure what will happen tomorrow, the Israelis these days are extremely conscious of time and schedules. If you like fast-paced, confrontational business dealings, Israel will be your kind of arena. If you wilt under pressure, consider less aggressive pastures.


Decision Making

Like much else in Israel, decision making in business is fast, loose, and flexible. In general, there is little emphasis on status, rank, or title. Most managers and executives are accessible, so visitors should have no problem negotiating directly with decision makers. However, business requiring government approval will probably take time, and patience will be needed in generous doses. Every bureaucrat seems to have the power (and burning desire) to change, amend, and even ignore rules or regulations that would otherwise seem to be spelled out quite clearly. This almost rabbinical tendency to interpret rather than act can raise blood pressure quickly.

A system of "fixers" or insiders has developed to smooth over these rough spots either through cajoling, name dropping, or graft when necessary (see below). Visitors will just have to attribute this one bit of Israeli lethargy to cultural nuance.


Meetings

Foreign businesspeople should make appointments for meetings well in advance of arrival, but continue to verify them in the light of any major political events that may occur. Time is measured in nanoseconds in today's Israel, so visitors should make every attempt to be on time. Be aware, however, that the frenzied and harried pace of business will sometimes require that your appointments run late. Also, other "distractions" will suddenly alter the actual time of appointments. Be punctual, but be flexible.

Meetings will open with handshakes all around, business card exchanges, brief chitchat, and then a sudden plunge on to the business at hand. Discussions proceed quickly and adhere to a rough agenda, but are subject to frequent interruption. However, meetings do not drag on needlessly--and almost never over long lazy lunches. Instead, they are conducted in a frank and straightforward manner with full meals being brought right to the meeting table if the negotiations run through a meal period.

Terms and potential problems are openly discussed before reaching agreement--no hidden agendas, no back channel meetings, just plain straight-ahead deal cutting. Despite the otherwise fast pace of business, most Israelis do not like to conduct meetings by telephone, preferring instead a meeting. "Face-to-face" is a local specialty, and Israelis believe it gives them and their dugri style an advantage.

They will be well prepared and ready to do business, and foreign businesspeople should do likewise. Israelis in a buying mode do not like to hear, "I'll get back to you with that information later"--later is too late. As is true in much of Israeli life, it is now or never.


Business Entertaining

Israelis have a very Mediterranean approach to entertaining that brings both warmth and generosity to the table. Be aware that business dinners may not start until after nine o'clock in the evening, and that the nightlife in Israeli cities (barring political upheaval) goes on until sunrise. Of course, much depends on with which type of Israeli managers the visitor associates. Orthodox Jews or Arabs may observe every religious stricture on food and alcohol that they can unearth and go to bed early. More secular types may not pass up the opportunity for any form of a good time that comes their way and dance until dawn. Anything in between is possible.

Israelis of all types like to talk and the topic of politics is at the top of the list. There are few gray areas in Israeli discussions, and every opinion is held tightly. Visitors should take care to feel out their hosts' opinions before coming down on any particular side of an issue. Foreign managers that wish to stage a little business entertainment of their own should make sure they are well versed in their Israeli counterpart's background. Seek out local caterers for help, and be aware of dietary and fasting restrictions. A little research and a few well-phrased questions go a long way toward avoiding offensive situations.


Women

Women are well represented and highly visible in the workforce and in government, with many of them holding positions of significant authority. They serve in the military, where their role is being continuously expanded, and overall discrimination seems to be less evident than in many other countries where females supposedly enjoy equality. Foreign businesswomen should experience few difficulties conducting business, as Israelis managers are quite accustomed to dealing with women.

Israeli business remains, however, male dominated, and the dugri style of negotiating is a very male and confrontational format. Stay calm, maintain an unruffled exterior, and wait for male counterparts to exhaust themselves. Patient finesse carries the day.


Business Attire

Israeli business attire tends toward the informal, although Israelis are very fashion conscious and always try to be in style. Business suits are usually reserved only for high-level government meetings or PR events. Most Israeli businessmen wear slacks and open-collared shirts to the office. Women generally wear lightweight dresses, pantsuits, or skirt/blouse combinations. Remember that most of the year the weather remains somewhat arid and warm, except at the coast, where it is humid, and in the cooler winter months between December and March. Both sexes should keep accessories discreet and tasteful. When traveling to rural areas, bring clothes that are easily laundered.


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