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Forget the Politicians: This U.S. Lawmaker Thinks High-tech Can Bring Israelis and Palestinians Together

February 11, 2021
In The News

Rep. Ro Khanna, who made waves last week for saying the Biden administration would “radically reset” U.S.-Israel ties, is calling for improved relations between the United States, Israel and the Palestinians through innovation and economic development.

“I believe in the strategic and cultural importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” the Democrat from California told Haaretz on Wednesday. “I still believe in the possibility of a two-state solution – I understand the aspiration of a Jewish state, but that can be guided on principles of liberal, pluralistic democracy,” he says. “There should be a Palestinian state, and it seems to me that focus on innovation, entrepreneurship and cultural exchange are ways to get there.”

Khanna, 44, has participated in dialogue between Palestinians, Israelis and Jewish Americans in the congressional district he represents. “I’m a believer in citizen diplomacy and initiatives for economic empowerment that may help us, in the 21st century, cut past some of the gridlock that has been created by government-to-government approaches,” he says.

He’s particularly proud of Israeli-American cooperation on technology in his home district, which includes Silicon Valley. “I facilitated a roundtable in 2018 with the Consul General Shlomi Kofman on how we can facilitate cooperation. I’m well aware of the unbelievable innovation Israel has, particularly in developing the Negev into a tech hub and the lessons we can learn in the United States about technology development in communities that have been left behind,” he says.

“A lot of the tech companies in my district – including Apple, Twitter, Google and Facebook – have purchased many Israeli startups. Intel is in my district and acquired Mobileye,” he says, adding that when he was an attorney, he was involved in deals involving technology startups in Israel.

Khanna also notes that his district hosts a sizable Israeli expat community – whose members came to the United States largely thanks to technological cooperation – as well as constituents who devote resources to fostering Palestinian innovation.

“Irwin Federman, a well-respected [venture capitalist] who is also a friend and supporter, has an amazing program where he seeks out and funds Palestinian startups and entrepreneurs,” Khanna says. “If we prioritize the cooperation on economics and economic development, science and technology, these are things that can bring people that have common aspirations together.

“Fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, and supporting Palestinian economic development, is so critical to the search for peace,” he adds. “The innovation economy, the startup economy, the entrepreneurial economy of this new generation can create the opportunities for economic cooperation and ultimately for more mutual understanding and peace. That’s the direction I’d like to see – where people are empowered to create new things, to develop their own potential and their economy.”

‘Moral obtuseness’

Khanna, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, says any U.S. foreign policy relating to Israel and the Palestinians has to be grounded in human rights for both sides, and this should start with halting any new settlement activity and preventing U.S. military equipment from being used to demolish Palestinian homes in the West Bank.

“Rep. Anna Eshoo, Rep. Steve Cohen and I wrote a letter that said no U.S. military equipment should be used to carry out West Bank home demolitions,” he says. “Sixty-four or so members of Congress signed that letter because they understand the rights of Palestinians in their home should be respected. I understand in some cases that is disputed territory, but at the very least we should halt new settlement activity before we can seek a peaceful solution. This is reasonable in trying to seek peace that can be determined in negotiations – it shouldn’t be preemptively determined.”

Khanna co-sponsored and voted in favor of the latest 10-year foreign aid to Israel agreement, and has voted against both the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and the UN Security Council resolution against settlements on the grounds that they were an obstacle to peace.

He’s also said the U.S. should condition aid to Israel on it not contradicting American policy interests or human rights, co-sponsored a resolution praising the Israel-United Arab Emirates normalization but insisted it should not lead to carte blanche weapons sales considering the war in Yemen, slammed Israel for not allowing Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar to visit the country, and condemned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “moral obtuseness” following the latter’s remarks on the U.S. Embassy dedication in Jerusalem, which coincided with deadly Gaza border clashes.

Khanna says it is possible to be critical of a country’s policies without being against a country itself, and he is careful to stress that he understands the history of the Jewish people and why the issue of security is paramount. “I think it’s very important to be precise in how we speak about the issue, concerning both Israel and Palestine. American discourse is not very precise, but I think it is an extra burden and one that I will take very seriously when I speak about the Middle East,” he says.

“We have to understand the security risks Israel faces, but my sense is that Netanyahu’s policies have made this situation worse,” he adds. “If you had Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres’ approach, you’d have a better chance of highlighting the innovation contributions to the world. That should be a chance the next generation has.”

Khanna notes, however, that a sharp line must be drawn between criticism of Israeli policy and antisemitism.

“There’s antisemitism rising both in the United States and around the world,” he says. “I led an effort on combating antisemitism in Poland and Ukraine. I voted against the BDS movement because of the economic ties between Israel and Silicon Valley, but also because of antisemitism on college campuses. If someone takes a position critical of a Netanyahu policy on settlement activity or demolition of villages or what peace should look like, then those views should be respected as part of a political dialogue. It’s a balance.”

Khanna highlights the left-wing, pro-Israel J Street as an example of a group that has “created an honest conversation on policy while recognizing the danger of antisemitism that still lurks in the United States and around the world.”

Parallels with criticism of Modi

J Street’s chief lobbyist, Dylan Williams, told Haaretz that Khanna “has been a leader in pushing back against demolitions and other harmful acts of creeping annexation in the West Bank, and in seeking to ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars are not used to fund actions that undermine American interests, Palestinian rights and Israel’s long-term future.”

Khanna, an Indian American, sees parallels with his own vocal criticism of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “I’m very proud of my Indian heritage. My grandfather spent four years in jail during Gandhi’s independence movement, he was literally in the first Indian Parliament,” he says. “When I have been critical of certain policies of the Indian government, it doesn’t make me any less a believer in the U.S.-India relationship. I’m vice chair of the India caucus. It shows a consistency that I put human rights first and I’m willing to speak out, whether it’s about America, the country of my heritage, or Israel and Palestine.”

Khanna also notes the unique bond shared by Israel and India. He visited Israel alongside other Indian Americans 15 years ago, before he entered politics, to facilitate better understanding between the two countries. “One of the things that I came away with is how many people in Israel after military service went to India, how India was one of the places where Jews have faced the least persecution in the world, and some of the oldest Jewish tribes have had a presence in south India,” he says, adding that he believes the India-Israel relationship can be one based on culture, innovation and cultural exchange.

“Of course, an aspect will be tied to national security, but it needs to be rooted in values of pluralism, liberal democracy, in values that are inclusive that aren’t marginalizing minority communities,” he says. “I look to a Shimon Peres, who is in the tradition of someone like a Nehru in India and someone like Barack Obama in the United States – leaders who aspire for democracies to be multiracial, multiethnic, pluralistic, and recognize the need for nations to treat other nations based on principles of human rights.”