The broader context of Israel-US business relations

Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of International Affairs of the US Chamber of Commerce, sizes up the Israeli economy and US markets.

Former president Shimon Peres meets with Myron Brilliant, with US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro in the background (photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)
Former president Shimon Peres meets with Myron Brilliant, with US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro in the background
(photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)
Myron Brilliant is paying close attention to Israel – and he thinks American business leaders should, too.
“We calculated that there are tens of thousands of American jobs tied to Israel, and this is not well understood in political circles in DC or in Israel,” says the executive vice president of the US Chamber of Commerce.
Working for the world’s largest business organization, which represents the interests of more than three million businesses with some 3,000 local chapters, he wants to discuss what Israel is doing right and where he sees the future leading. The Israel-American Chamber of Commerce is an affiliate of the larger organization.
Although the local branch was established in 1965, Brilliant has been focused on increasing the outreach to Israel for only the past seven years. “We wanted to be more active, because of the start-up nation concept, the entrepreneurial spirit, and the fact that US companies have a large hi-tech presence here,” he says. “There are many companies in technology and other sectors, such as health, that have major research and development divisions [based in Israel].”
For Brilliant, the reason is obvious – Israel is an innovation hub. It is pioneering in water research and in health and energy.
All of these developments are utilized by companies in the US and all over the world. “The US-Israel relationship cannot be defined by how many widgets are sold; but must be looked at in a broader context.” The broader context is in the news often, such as how Israel is helping California learn to handle its water crisis.
“Because of our unique role and standing in US, we believe we have an opportunity to deepen the economic relationship and broaden understanding of that relationship when the overall relationship is fraught with challenges brought on by regional instability,” says Brilliant. That means that even though Israel-US relations have been tested by the Iran deal, the fact is that economically the countries are closely connected.
“That is the bedrock,” says Brilliant, and it is often not understood how integrated these economies are and how much they benefit one another. For instance, he notes that Israel and the US are now celebrating 30 years since they signed a free trade agreement. According to the Office of the US Trade Representative, Israel is the 24th largest goods trading partner, with $38 billion in trade in 2014. But Brilliant feels that the FTA agreement is in need of updating due to new developments, such as the Internet, that have come about in the past few decades.
One major issue now being examined is how Israel handles the gas deal. Noble Energy, a US-based company, has invested heavily in natural gas off Israel’s coast, but politicians have balked at some of the deals with the government. “So we are watching developments here in the energy deal; we have a great stake, our companies have a great stake. We believe there was good-faith negotiation between the companies who invested and the Israel government. We believe the voices of the coalition were in support of it, we believe the Knesset has signaled its strong support, and we are watching how that goes forward. Should it not proceed, it will have a chilling effect on the commercial relationship, but if the investment goes forward and thrives, it will have a positive effect,” he says.
Another field that the US Chamber is watching closely is cyber security. “We face challenges in this field and Israel is at the cutting edge. It should work with governments to find a path forward for joint ventures and partnerships and protect industries from cyber threats. We propose that we continue to see our [US] government engage at highest level; we want a strategic dialogue and we are promoting that with ministers during our days here.”
BRILLIANT’S INTEREST in Israel goes back years, and he also has a personal attachment. Over lunch at Jerusalem’s iconic Ima restaurant, he discusses his sister, who holds an executive position at a synagogue in New York.
His great-aunt Rose Halperin even hosted Golda Meir at her apartment on the Upper East Side. “So while I have a connection to the state, I believe we have an opportunity to help our members.”
For the past seven years Israel and the US have had a special business initiative that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu helped inaugurate. “I believe we can do more together. There are areas where we could [have] deeper collaboration. Do I think the governments have an obligation to talk about these issues in a way they don’t currently do? Yes. That’s what drives us,” he says.
Business transcends politics, he argues, and there are many areas that Israel and US trade relations can grow, relating to life sciences and manufacturing. But for that to happen, Israel should consider reforms. Brilliant discusses the tangled web of regulations that companies face in Israel, the legacy of 1950s-era bureaucracy. “Government policies must be updated and there must be regulatory transparency. People think that it is easy to do business here, but it isn’t. There are complex regulations, and they are not always consistent with the standards we have. Differences over intellectual property must be discussed between governments.”
Towards that end, Brilliant and his team, such as Josh Kram, his director of Turkey and Middle East Affairs, and Hagit Genish-Gill, their Israel representative, have held meetings with finance minister Moshe Kahlon, economy minister Arye Deri, as well as President Reuven Rivlin. Brilliant argues that there should be high-level dialogue relating to economic issues between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office. Even if they have political disagreements about Iran, the business relationship can be nurtured.
One issue that gets a great deal of attention in media is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. However, Brilliant sees this as more an issue of local activists on college campuses. “There are elements of anti-semitism that have spread to this debate, but overseas [such as in Europe] there have been movements towards BDS and we must be forceful advocates against that.”
He argues that we shouldn’t overplay the issue, but must watch it closely. The concept of the US Chamber is to promote positive highlights regarding Israel and new ways to partner. That is the “greatest antidote to BDS.”