Brown's deal with Israel good for California, and vice versa

By Janine Zacharia | March 8, 2014

As California’s drought took hold this winter, and farmers and officials bickered over water allocations, I wondered: Where are the Israelis?

Nearly two decades ago, as a reporter based in Israel, I traveled around the country’s southern Negev Desert to investigate how Israelis were making a parched terrain bloom.

Hot, brackish water was being pumped from an ancient aquifer 3,000 feet beneath the surface to irrigate succulent tomatoes. Recycled wastewater from Tel Aviv’s toilets was being sent southward to desert farms. Mini-reservoirs, seeking to salvage every drop of water, dotted the landscape.

Israel had no choice but to innovate. Despite sparse rainfall, the country now leads the world in water reclamation, reusing between 75 and 90 percent of its water, by varied official estimates. The next closest is Spain at a little more than 20 percent. California, where the vast majority of water goes to agriculture, recycles only about 13 percent.

California officials appear reticent to encourage or mandate water conservation on a serious scale. In Israel, it’s a national ethos. Every child learns the Hebrew slogan: Tachsoch ba’tipah – “Don’t waste a drop.”

That attitude might start to rub off here now that Israel and California have signed a deal to bolster Israel’s cooperation with California in fields including water conservation (“Deal binds Silicon Valley, Israel,” March 6).

“We don’t have a water problem,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proudly proclaimed on Wednesday at Mountain View’s Computer History Museum as he stood next to Gov. Jerry Brown at the agreement’s signing. “California doesn’t need to have a water problem. We’ve proven it.”

Even with Israel’s success, there is some bombast in Netanyahu’s words. Water remains a statewide concern. The level of the Sea of Galilee – Israel’s most important freshwater source – is graphically depicted in newspapers and on television news in doomsday fashion, especially in the dry summertime, when, as in California, a raindrop doesn’t fall from the sky.

Israel draws water from aquifers beneath the West Bank, where millions of Palestinians live and are seeking a state of their own. How to share the precious reserve is among the hot political disputes being negotiated by American diplomats – next week UC Berkeley will host a conference on Israeli-Palestinian water issues. And some experts predict a new Middle Eastern war is more likely to be triggered by water scarcity than by territorial disputes or terrorism.

Still, Brown would be well advised to turn the symbolic agreement signed this week into something more tangible – fast. Given the geographic similarities and already existing informal ties that exist, Israeli expertise in water conservation could be especially transformative here. And in the other areas that Brown and Netanyahu identified for deepened cooperation – cybersecurity and alternative energy – Israel has obvious expertise to share, too.

Brown appears to realize that even with all of the genius in the Golden State, it needs help from the outside. To that end, last year he traveled to China to sign environmental cooperation deals. Last month, he signed a memorandum of understanding similar to the one he signed with Israel, with Peru. He welcomes foreign leaders here as if he were the secretary of state of the country of California.

“It seems like we’ve become a mandatory stop for state visitors, a second U.S. capital,” said Russell Hancock, president and CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley. “Heads of state visit Washington because that is of course our political epicenter, but it’s pretty clear that Silicon Valley has become the epicenter of everything else: trends, technology, cybersecurity, social media and all the rest.”

This made Netanyahu’s visit hardly surprising. And, Hancock hastened to add: “Israel has a lot to teach us right now about water conservation.”

The private sector has already realized the contribution Israel can make in tech. In June, Google bought the Israeli mapping and traffic startup Waze for more than $1 billion. In November, Apple Inc. acquired Israeli 3-D chip developer PrimeSense for a reported $350 million.

More than 150 Israeli startups are based in Silicon Valley, and somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 Israeli expats live in the South Bay. (Some estimate the population at closer to 100,000, but the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco calls that number exaggerated.) Hewlett-Packard, Google, Intel and Applied Materials all have development centers in Israel. And the deal signed by Netanyahu and Brown will give Israelis easier access to California research centers across the state to facilitate even easier access to the California marketplace.

For Netanyahu, the tech deals aren’t only lucrative. Being the prime minister of the Start-Up Nation, as a 2009 book dubbed it, allows him to try to reframe the dominant narrative about his country from an oftentimes negative one focused on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to a positive one about Israeli innovation.

For Brown, the deal with Israel holds clear promise. If it is fleshed out, Israeli engineers, beyond developing the next cool multimillion-dollar app, can help solve some of California’s most pressing problems.

But the formalized relations are not without political risk for the governor. A campaign for a boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel over its West Bank occupation has a vocal following in California, and a gaggle of protesters outside the signing ceremony sought to remind Brown of that.

“I surely hope there are political repercussions on him for making this horrible, horrible economic deal with the apartheid state of Israel,” said Donna Wallach, who went from San Jose to demonstrate outside the signing ceremony. She and a friend carried a Palestinian flag and a placard that read: “Gov. Brown: Don’t partner with Israeli occupation.” A handful of others did the same as cars passing by on Shoreline Boulevard honked in support.

Such constituent opposition, for now, is clearly not a political concern for Brown. But with growing calls globally to boycott Israeli entities, this week’s memorandum of understanding with California, from Netanyahu’s perspective, couldn’t have come at a better time.

Janine Zacharia is the Carlos Kelly McClatchy visiting lecturer at Stanford and a former Jerusalem bureau chief for the Washington Post.