By NICHOLAS HAMBURGER, Special to the CCJN
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards recounted his recent trade mission to Israel in front of a crowded assembly room at the University of New Orleans on Monday, January 28, elaborating on the economic partnership he hopes his late October visit forged between his Southern state and the Middle Eastern country.
Organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, Monday’s event occurred almost exactly a year after the New Orleans City Council passed and later rescinded a resolution calling for the city to cut business ties with companies that violate human rights. The resolution, which lacked the force of law, was initially drafted by members of the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee — an activist group which supports the “boycott, divest, and sanction” (BDS) movement against Israel.
Edwards, who issued an executive order last May preventing the state from conducting business with entities that support BDS, offered a resounding endorsement of Israel on Monday evening, the day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“The way we achieve success is by stepping out into the world and embracing great business and trade opportunities,” he said. “That’s why I can think of no greater economic partner to embrace than the nation of Israel.”
Edwards’ visit to Israel was highlighted by an hour-long, face-to-face meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and though Edwards was circumspect regarding the specifics of what was discussed, he poked fun at the length of their conversation, explaining, “I think when [Netanyahu] left he had to go to Parliament and didn’t want to go. And I can understand that.”
Flanked by 23 people on the trip, Edwards carried out nearly two dozen meetings during the weeklong mission, including appointments with representatives of Twistlock, a software container and security company which opened an engineering center at LSU in 2018, and ZIM Integrated Shipping Services, the largest cargo shipping company in Israel.
While the range of Edwards’ meetings underscores the multifaceted purpose of the trip, one intention of the trade visit stands out: to expand the implementation of Israeli technologies in Louisiana.
In particular, Edwards cited the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Baton Rouge-based Water Institute of the Gulf and the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research, operated by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, as an example of the new partnerships made possible by the mission.
Before Edwards spoke, a discussion focusing on Israeli water technology, entrepreneurialism and shipping took place between three members of the governor’s envoy to Israel: Justin Ehrenwerth, president and CEO of the Water Institute; Robert Landry, vice president and CCO of the Port of New Orleans; and Jay Dardenne, Commissioner of the Division of Administration for the State of Louisiana.
The jewel in the crown of Baton Rouge’s Water Campus, the Water Institute was founded in 2011 to connect academic, public, and private researchers studying deltaic and coastal water systems. The institution has had a global bent from its inception, frequently collaborating with Deltares, a Dutch research center which served as a model for the Water Institute at the time of its founding.
Given the scarcity of water in Israel, the desert country might seem an odd place to turn for a flood-prone state whose coastline is rapidly disappearing. But as Ehrenwerth pointed out, Louisiana and Israel are united in the extremity of their situations. “We both deal with water as an existential crisis,” he said.
Unlike Louisiana, though, Israel is at the vanguard of water technology. “The Israelis have figured out how to make the desert bloom,” continued Ehrenwerth, who is a member of the Board of Directors of Touro Synagogue. “The desalinization [technology] they’ve pioneered is second to none in the world.” Louisiana, Ehrenwerth stated, will soon possess the resources to apply various technologies developed in Israel, like cutting-edge leak detection, to itself.
“We are now in a position to do something about it, unfortunately as a result of crises,” Ehrenwerth said. “The BP oil spill, for example: there will be more money coming down to Louisiana and other states in the gulf than has ever been experienced in human history for (the) ecosystem and environmental restoration. It’s the largest environmental settlement in history.”
The prospective application of Israeli technologies in Louisiana, however, is not limited to water technology. Cybersecurity deals also formed a central part of Edwards’ trade mission. “Israel has excelled like no other nation in the area of cybersecurity,” Edwards said. “40% of all private sector cybersecurity investment in the world is in Israel.”
According to Robert Landry, the need for increased cybersecurity in ports has grown due to the transition to electronic documentation and forms of payment. Edwards pointed to the signing of a research agreement between LSU and Check Point, a multinational Israeli provider of cybersecurity, as evidence of the partnerships his trip yielded.
The agreement, Edwards said, “will lead to LSU’s Stephenson Technologies Corp. testing and utilizing Check Point hardware and software in unique ways that will protect and provide resiliency for Louisiana industries.”
But the governor also hopes to transplant the state’s expertise to Israel, namely via the oil and gas industry. While abroad, Edwards met with representatives of Noble Energy, a Houston-headquartered oil and gas company with operations in Israel and the Mediterranean, and Delek Group, an Israeli petroleum conglomerate.
In Israel, a country with a modest output of oil and gas production, Edwards sees an opportunity for Louisiana companies to help. As he put it on Monday night, “It just so happens Moses led his people to the only part of the Middle East that doesn’t have oil.”