Edwards touts Louisiana-Israel trade partnership possibilities

Israeli Consul General Gilad Katz presents Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards with photos from the state’s Israel mission, as Bill Hess looks on, before the Jan. 28 panel in New Orleans

Over two evenings, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards touted successes from the recent Louisiana trade mission to Israel.

On Jan. 28, Edwards spoke following a panel discussion at the University of New Orleans, and at a similar event on Jan. 29 at the Estuary at the Water Campus in Baton Rouge. Each night, the panel was comprised of participants in the October mission.

Edwards said the trip will result in “a new level of cooperation and collaboration… that will make us stronger.”

About two dozen went on the mission, which left Louisiana on Oct. 27. Participants emphasized how it was a working trip, with 22 meetings over the course of four days.

The mission had its origins in a May 22 ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion, where Edwards signed an executive order forbidding the state from signing contracts with companies that participate in boycotts of Israel.

Israeli Consul General Gilad Katz, from the Houston consulate, attended the event and invited Edwards to visit Israel. Edwards told his economic development team to make it happen, and the trip took place five months later. Edwards commented that for a trip of that type, “that was lightning fast.”

He added that he returned from Israel in time for the LSU-Alabama game, but “I wish I’d stayed a couple more days” given the game’s result.

Katz, who accompanied Edwards in Israel, attended the New Orleans event, presenting Edwards with framed photos from the trip — and an invitation to return.

While Edwards said they got to see a lot of Israel, they did not get to see all of it, so “I have every intention of going back.”

There were three panelists each night, with two of them — Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne and Water Institute of the Gulf President Justin Ehrenwerth — speaking each night.

Ehrenwerth said both Israel and Louisiana deal with water “as an existential crisis.” It was stated repeatedly that Louisiana has too much, and Israel has too little, leading many of the Israelis they met with to joke that Louisiana just needs to build a long pipeline to Israel.

“We didn’t spend a lot of time saying how different we were,” Ehrenwerth said, but discussed collaboration and how Israel was able to solve their water challenges.

Now that Israel is finally in a good place regarding water supply, they are able to start working on other aspects of water policy, such as stream sustainability. “That is an area we know a lot about in Louisiana.”

Because of how streams transcend borders, they discussed how restoration efforts can also be part of a peace dialogue.

He also mentioned “remarkable technology” that Israel has developed for pipes and other liquid infrastructure, detecting leaks well before what is currently possible. “We have some old infrastructure in New Orleans,” he commented.

Ehrenwerth called it “a very important trip from a professional perspective,” adding that there is limitless potential in the partnership.

This was his seventh trip to Israel, but he said this was “completely different.”

Edwards said the vision for the Water Institute of the Gulf is to have a world-wide impact, with Louisiana as a global leader in water management.

Dardenne spoke about Israel as the start-up nation, saying the government invests in startups and risky ventures knowing that many of them would fail, but others would succeed tremendously. He said that is a different culture than the United States, where state governments are not in that type of position and are much more risk averse.

The group repeatedly heard the expression that Israel “lives in a bad neighborhood,” Dardenne said.

Robert Landry, chief commercial officer for the Port of New Orleans, spoke at the New Orleans event. He noted that one of the largest shipping container lines using the Port of New Orleans is Zim, which is an Israeli company. Landry and many of the participants met with the president of Zim during the trip.

Grain and frozen chicken are exported to Israel through New Orleans, while imports from Israel include food products and a lot of furniture for Rooms To Go.

A major concern for the shipping industry is cyber security, and Landry noted that a hacker attack had previously shut down the port in Mobile for three days. “Cyber security is increasingly important, and we put a high priority on that.”

Justin Ehrenwerth, Jay Dardenne and Maj. Gen. Glenn Curtis share their Israel experiences in Baton Rouge

In Baton Rouge, Maj. Gen. Glenn Curtis, co-chair of the Louisiana Cybersecurity Commission, noted that he had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, “some pretty tough areas,” so he didn’t know what the “threat environment would be visiting Israel.” He quickly realized this would be a different experience, as he “never felt threatened,” and he was “amazed to see the different religions, different nationalities” throughout Israel.

With everyone in Israel focused on national survival, “they have to be masters of the cyber world,” including the realms of government, oil and gas, transportation and water.

Cyber-security is a major emphasis for Edwards, who noted that 40 percent of private sector investment in cyber security takes place in Israel. He said there will be a national cyber-security conference with officials from all 50 states invited, this May in Bossier City, and he anticipates a lot of representation from Israel.

“It’s my goal for Louisiana to be a national and international leader in cyber security, and there is so much we can learn from Israel on this front,” he said. He also mentioned that the only cyber security degree in the U.S. is granted at Louisiana Tech.

He also touted a new partnership with Israeli cyber-security firm Check Point.

Related: LSU, Check Point agreement a tangible result of trade mission

Another area of emphasis is Israel’s development of gas fields in the Mediterranean, a field where Israel doesn’t have much experience, but Louisiana does.

Edwards said a highlight of the trip was meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the type of visit that Edward said is usually perfunctory and done as a courtesy, but “it was obvious… that this was going to be more than that” as the 20 minutes allotted for the visit stretched into almost an hour and a half.

While being a governor isn’t easy, Edwards said that “compared to his job, I’ve got it made over here.”

Though the schedule was packed, there were many personal moments on the trip.

The first full day of the mission was a Sunday, which Edwards noted is a work day in Israel. They got up at 4 a.m. to attend the 5:30 a.m. Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He said it was a “special time” for many on the trip.

The morning included a visit to Yad Vashem, where like so many other dignitaries, he and his wife placed a wreath at the memorial. But since it was the day after the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, that “transformed it to more than a ceremonial thing you do because you’re a governor.”

A Pittsburgh native, Ehrenwerth said he knew some of those who were killed at Tree of Life. In Israel, he was inspired by “the resilience they conveyed, the understanding of what going through a trauma like that meant.”

After being asked in New Orleans about the relative lack of Holocaust education in the state, Edwards commented in Baton Rouge the next night that “we’re not doing a very good job of making sure people know,” and the fact that it is an uncomfortable subject “is probably more reason it needs to be taught, not less.”

This was Dardenne’s first trip to Israel, and he admitted that he had never really expected that he might ever make that journey. For him, it was especially “poignant” to be at the Western Wall, because his brother died in June, and the night before the delegation headed to Israel, his brother’s youngest son died of cancer.

The group visited an Iron Dome outpost at night and had a briefing from IDF soldiers, after which two of the soldiers asked for a ride to Tel Aviv. Being able to talk with the two soldiers “really reminded me how young they are, the position they are in and how much responsibility is on their shoulders,” Ehrenwerth said.

After visiting the Golan Heights and seeing into Syria, they had an unexpected break due to Israel’s municipal elections, giving them the opportunity to tour sites in the Galilee. Edward said it was particularly meaningful to be on the Sea of Galilee, and to read the Beatitudes where Jesus gave that sermon.

Donna Sternberg, who was credited with helping make the trip possible, speculated as to where Edwards’ affinity for Israel comes from. Perhaps, she said, it was when he studied Israeli military strategy at West Point, or “perhaps he recognizes a true friend when he sees one.”

Henry Miller, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, said “we are excited about the future of the Israel-Louisiana alliance under the governor’s leadership.”

Edwards said “I want to be a good, reliable partner for the Jewish community in Louisiana,” and “The best days of Israel, the best days of Louisiana and the United States are ahead of us.”

The New Orleans event was co-hosted by the Anti-Defamation League, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Greater New Orleans Inc., Israel’s Consulate General to the Southwestern United States, National Council of Jewish Women: Greater New Orleans Section, the New Orleans Business Alliance, the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, the Port of New Orleans, Tulane University and the World Trade Center New Orleans.