TEL AVIV, Israel -- This week, a new organization of biotechnology companies was formed under the leadership of Zachi Berger, chief operating officer of XTL Biopharmaceuticals Ltd., in Rehovot. Berger, with Alex Kotzer, president of InterPharm Laboratories Ltd., in Ness Ziona, will co-chair the new organization.

"We are an industrial arm working in cooperation with the Israel Manufacturers' Association," Berger said. "We represent and will lobby for the biotech companies, like the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization [BIO] does in the U.S."

The new organization has 40 member enterprises out of the approximately 100 biotechnology companies here.

Berger contrasted his group with the Israel National Biotechnology Committee. "Unlike the national biotechnology committee [headed by departing chairman Haim Aviv, Pharmos Ltd.'s founder and CEO], which was formed by the government to consult for the government, we come from industry for industry, but with the bigger picture in mind, with the future of the nation in cooperation with all sectors," Berger said.

"We have been successful in involving the government in a process to create a national development plan for biotechnology, a long-term view to access and aid the biotechnology sector," Berger said. This will be done with the global consulting firm Monitor Co., headquartered in the U.S. with a local branch in Israel.

Monitor was chosen for its "interesting and unusual views, because we want to make real changes, not just the appearance of changes, and they have proven that ability around the world, and with Bezek [the national telephone carrier] here in Israel," Berger told BioWorld International.

In February, the group will make its first formal public presentation, in the form of a one-day conference of local companies and invited foreign industry representatives. Berger explained that this first-time effort is receiving support from all cognizant branches of the government, including the Ministry of Industry and Trade, Ministry of Science, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Finance, and the Israel Export Institute, and all of the industry-support groups, such as Matimop.

"Together we are organizing a booth in BIO '99 [BIO's trade show, to be held in Seattle this year], which will be the first public presentation outside of Israel," Berger said. "I am trying to involve some Israelis working in the U.S. in successful biotech companies to try to encourage them to participate in the process. There is a lot of work right now."

Following the lead of the biotechnology sector, or perhaps encouraged by it, a group of the country's leading industrialists has set up a new economic forum to promote growth. In August, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established a national economic council with himself as its chairman, which was described by one leading industrialist as "the late-night party that no one could find."

"This body has not met even once, not even during the past several weeks during the economic crisis caused by the shekel's rapid depreciation," said Israel Manufacturers' Association president Dan Propper.

The new forum's goal is to draw up operative recommendations for promoting growth through cooperation between the various sectors of the economy and the government. It is to be chaired by Hanan Achsaf, president of Motorola Israel, and its steering committee will include three past and present presidents of the manufacturers' association: Propper, who is CEO of Osem; Teva Pharmaceuticals' president Eli Hurvitz; and Delta CEO Dov Lautman. The forum will discuss matters such as cooperation and competition, infrastructure development for long-term growth, human capital initiatives, fiscal and monetary policy for research and development, the capital market and the peace process.

"The government must realize that we are a small country," Achsaf said. "Uncontrolled liberalization of the sort that is being encouraged today is destroying thousands of factories, leading to the dismissal of tens of thousands of workers, even in the sterling high-tech industry. We are competing against global giants and, in times like these, when social concerns are prominent, when 700,000 people live in poverty in Israel, we must take some serious initiative."

Propper said 1998 had been the worst year of the last decade, from an economic point of view. "I beg the government to look at the unemployed, the businesses that are failing, and the potential lost in all areas -- and to make a decision whereby encouraging growth, and not controlling inflation, would be seen as the crowning achievement of the decade," he said.

"Israel is ranked 35th in the world, measured by investment in infrastructure," he added. "Instead of taking advantage of human capital, investments in research and development by the government have fallen by a third, while the tax burden has increased. We must change direction in order to grow and to utilize the enormous potential that exists here. We welcome and encourage all initiatives from all sectors that encourage intelligent growth and development." *