jbe israel

Israel Innovation Authority chief scientist Ami Appelbaum meets with Gov. John Bel Edwards and other members of a delegation from Louisiana in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Gov. John Bel Edwards is hoping that a recent trip to Israel will strengthen Louisiana's connections to Israel and lay the groundwork for new economic development opportunities and future research partnerships.

No immediate payoff from the weeklong trade mission has been announced yet, but such endeavors frequently take months or years to bear fruit.

Edwards, who returned from Israel on Friday, repeatedly expressed optimism about the opportunities that could be created through his meetings with business leaders, government officials and researchers.

"This has been a great trip for us," Edwards said.

A meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that was expected to be a handshake and brief chat ended up lasting for more than an hour, as they discussed opportunities for Louisiana and Israeli partnerships, the nation's economic and security concerns, and other priorities that the state and Middle Eastern country share.

Gilad Katz, the Israeli consul general to the southwest United States who was in Louisiana earlier this year during the legislative session, invited Edwards to Israel and joined him for much of the trip.

Edwards, a Democrat, joins a long list of governors who have made in-person pitches for Israel to partner with their states — a move that many have argued as crucial to stoking interest from a country half-a-world away.

"It's not every day we have a governor from any U.S. state coming here," IIA chief scientist Ami Appelbaum told Edwards. "We don't take it for granted that you are coming here. We take it as a big compliment but also a big responsibility."

Among those joining Edwards for the trip were Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson, Louisiana National Guard Adjutant Gen. Glenn Curtis, Baton Rouge Area Foundation President and CEO John Davies and others.

Louisiana exports more than $200 million in commodities to Israel each year, while buying $150 million worth from it. Edwards and other officials argue that there is room for growth on both ends.

The trip was Edwards' third official international mission as governor. He traveled to the Vatican last year on an anti-human trafficking mission and visited Cuba in 2016 for trade talks.

Already, one nonbinding agreement has been entered, thanks to Edwards' trip to Israel.

The nonprofit Water Institute of the Gulf signed a memorandum of understanding with Ben-Gurion University's Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research to link Louisiana's burgeoning water technology industry to a nation that is a leader in treating and conserving water.

"When you work in water, there are few better places to look to than Israel," said Water Institute President and CEO Justin Ehrenwerth.

The scoop on state politics in your inbox

Get the Louisiana politics insider details once a week from us. Sign up today.

One of the key focuses of the trip was on cybersecurity — a growing industry in Louisiana. Israel is recognized as a world leader in cybersecurity.

Edwards, who took office in January 2016, currently serves as co-chairman of the National Governors Association’s Resource Center for State Cybersecurity with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. The NGA’s national cybersecurity conference will be held in Shreveport-Bossier City in May 2019. Over the course of his trip, Edwards frequently urged public and private cybersecurity leaders in Israel to attend and take part in the event. He mentioned it to Netanyahu, as well.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant hosted a homeland security conference this year that drew more than 16 Israeli companies, as well as government officials. The conference was born out of a 2016 trip that Bryant and other leaders took to Israel, the Times of Israel reported.

Much of Israel's economy is built on small startup companies. During the trip, Edwards met with Wendy Singer, executive director of Start-Up Nation Central, a nonprofit that connects Israeli startups with companies and countries around the world, who expressed interest in developing relationships with Louisiana companies and government entities.

During the meeting with the Innovation Authority, Louisiana officials suggested the Israeli government entity could team up with the state's economic development authority to identify opportunities for Israeli companies to partner with Louisiana companies.

"This meeting could result in that happening," Dardenne said.

Dardenne pointed to the millions of dollars flowing to the state through federal offshore oil revenue for coastal restoration efforts as an example of one area that could be ripe for partnerships.

"We're losing so much land in Louisiana, and that's going to require innovation," Dardenne said. "There will be so much money going into it."

Dardenne said a private meeting with representatives from Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs generated several ideas for possible markets that could be enhanced through partnerships, including offshore drilling in Israel that Louisiana companies could provide expertise.

"Louisiana is an energy state and a global leader in oil and gas exploration and production," Edwards said. "We have a long-established track record of exporting our technology and expertise to international oil and gas markets. We are encouraged that there could be opportunities based in Israel for Louisiana companies, and companies with ties to Louisiana, to find opportunities there to invest, generate new revenue and create good jobs through growth.”

Edwards has been an outspoken supporter of Israel, even as some Democrats have voiced concerns about humanitarian issues linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the region.

Edwards issued an executive order earlier this year to bar the state of Louisiana from doing business with any entities engaged in boycotting Israel.

During the trip, Edwards, an Army Airborne Ranger and graduate of West Point, visited an Israeli Defense Forces base near the Gaza Strip and was briefed on the country’s “Iron Dome” air defense system. He also traveled close to the Syrian border for a briefing on the conflict in the Golan Heights region.

He said Israeli government officials had stressed that they wanted him to see the country's security situation firsthand.

Here's who joined Gov. John Bel Edwards on his mission to Israel:

  • First lady Donna Edwards
  • Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne
  • Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson
  • Louisiana National Guard Adjutant General Glenn Curtis (co-chair of Cybersecurity Commission)
  • Jeff Moulton, executive director of LSU Stephenson Center for Security Research and Training (member of Cybersecurity Commission)
  • Richard Carbo, governor's deputy chief of staff
  • Tyler Walker, governor's digital media
  • LED International Commerce director Larry Collins
  • LED International Commerce project manager Jessica Steverson
  • Baton Rouge Area Foundation President and CEO John Davies
  • Hans Sternberg, Highflyer HR CEO
  • Donna Sternberg, Highflyer HR executive VP, AIPAC national board member
  • Jeff McLeod, National Governors Association director of Homeland Security and Public Safety (assigned to NGA's cybersecurity effort co-chaired by Edwards)
  • Port of New Orleans President and CEO Brandy Christian
  • Port of New Orleans VP Robert Landry
  • Water Institute President and CEO Justin Ehrenwerth
  • Water Institute VP for Science Alyssa Dausman
  • Sharon Courtney, Tulane VP of Government & Community Relations
  • Advocate reporter Elizabeth Crisp
  • WAFB reporter Matt Houston
  • Three State Troopers working security detail

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.