JERUSALEM - As the deadline for the Israeli cabinet's decision on participating in the fifth framework of research funding from the European Union (EU) looms, the opposing stance of the Ministry of Finance and of Industry and Trade is becoming more entrenched.

Israel was the first non-European country to be associated with the fourth framework program of Scientific Research and Technological Development, which was endowed with ECU12.3 billion for all programs. Total funding for biotechnology was ECU588 million from 1996 to 1998 (and retroactive to 1994). Israel participated in all programs, including the management committees, but without voting rights.

“In the fourth framework program about 300 Israeli projects were approved, with a total budget of ECU50 million. Two hundred were granted to joint research projects at academic institutions and 60 went to joint small- and medium-sized enterprises,“ said Ilan Lowi, of the Israeli Contact Center, in Tel Aviv, for the European Union research programs. Twenty-nine Israeli projects were approved in biotechnology, with a total budget of ECU5.13 million.

Since 1992, Israel has played an important role in a European Parliament initiative aimed at promoting cooperation with the countries of the Mediterranean Basin in the fields of health, the environment and renewable energies.

The fifth framework program sets out research priorities for the next millennium. But opposition from Israel's Ministry of Finance, as well as from most academics and industry executives, places participation in question.

The main stumbling block is the national fee, about US$45 million, which detractors say would be better spent directly on developing R&D inside Israel, especially early-stage biotechnological projects and infrastructure used for evolving into production.

One of the most outspoken opponents is Zohar Zisapel, chairman of the Electronics Industries Federation, who said taking part in the plan is an utter waste of money, and tantamount to Israel subsidizing the EU with no gain.

It would not benefit Israeli industry, Zisapel explained, because “Israel is not a member of the EU, and companies here, even participating companies, are not entitled to the same favorable conditions that exist for EU countries.“

“Israeli developments would have benefited far more had the [US$45 million] membership fee and all associated costs of participation in the fourth EU framework been spent directly at home,“ Zisapel added.

The strongest voice for Israeli participation comes from Ministry of Industry and Trade Chief Scientist Orna Berry. She admitted “the program would not benefit Israeli companies in penetrating European markets.“ But, she added, “Israel's participation is important because it could lead to far-reaching joint ventures between Israeli and European industries.“

The test case for continued Israeli participation will be representation at the European Commission and U.K. round table on the future of biotechnology in Brussels, Belgium, June 25. *