I didn’t have a lot of forewarning that Consul General of Israel to the Midwest Roey Gilad would be at Sheraton City Centre on April 30, available for an interview. But when I arrived at the conference center, I knew I was in the right place. That is, I heard Hebrew being spoken. Men, some in military and police uniform — but most in two-piece suits — were hobnobbing at the tables set up in front of a podium.
I'd just walked into the tail end of the Indiana-Israel Business Exchange. The items being exchanged here, however, weren’t brochures on hummus. This was a networking opportunity for technology and defense industry companies located in Indiana looking to do business (or more business) in Israel or vice versa. Representatives of both Israeli and American companies were in the room. Also present were reps from the Indiana National Guard, Indiana Department of Homeland Security, and the Indiana State Police, looking for the latest gadgetry and training opportunities. Indiana Economic Development Corporation staffers were also in the room — the Hoosier counterparts to the Defense Export and Defense Cooperation organization (SIBAT) within the Israeli Ministry of Defense (who were there as well).
I barely had time to catch my breath before Governor Mike Pence walked into the room to deliver the closing remarks. Pence was smiling and relaxed: he clearly knew a lot of people in the room already. They seemed happy to see him.
I witnessed Pence greet the Honorable Roey Gilad, who had accompanied Pence on his trip to Israel four months ago. It wasn’t surprising to me that Pence was getting more love from the Mideast than from the Midwest after his epic RFRA debacle.
Well, he was getting more love, at least, from a certain part of the Mideast.
When in Israel last December, Pence created a small controversy at a Christmas Eve dinner hosted by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Pence, according to a December 30 story in The Indianapolis Star, declined an invitation to sit at the head table with Abbas during this meal. He also declined an offer to meet privately with Abbas. So much for Pence working to find common ground between Israelis and Palestinians.
Anyway, I’ll spare you details of Pence’s platitude-heavy speech; saying Indiana is a state that works, that values family just like Israel, etc. — but some of the statistics he cited are worth noting.
Indiana exported $57.2 million in goods to Israel in 2013, a 61 percent increase over 2005. And in the years 2010 -2013, Indiana imported an average of $154 million in goods from Israel. And Pence talked about wanting to increase these numbers.
But I wasn’t here to talk to Pence. After he left the conference room, I was able to sit down for a brief chat with Gilad, who is the highest ranking Israeli official based in the Midwest. Like many Israelis who work abroad, Gilad has an impressive resume. He has served in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 26 years. His previous position at the Ministry was the head of the Export Control Department. In addition to speaking Hebrew and English, he’s also fluent in Arabic and knowledgeable in French. He’s also an avid marathoner.
There were many questions that I wanted to ask Gilad but not a lot of time. If I had had foreknowledge that representatives of Raytheon would be present, I might’ve asked him about the Raytheon-manufactured Paveway II smart bomb deployed by the Israelis in the Gaza Strip during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. (This assault left over 2,000 Palestinians dead. Five Israeli civilians, including one child, were killed by rocket attacks from Gaza during this conflict, as well as 66 Israeli Defense Forces soldiers.)
The Waltham, MA.-based Raytheon is also one of the companies behind the Iron Dome Defense Shield that helped protect Israel against missiles launched from Gaza during that conflict. Raytheon recently won a contract to build portions of that system in Indy. If Raytheon does expand its manufacturing capabilities in Indiana, it will be interesting to see whether the expansion is related to defensive or offensive weaponry — and to see where that weaponry will be heading.
It’s worth noting that the 1.82 million population in Gaza is packed together so tightly that Raytheon’s slogan “We take a dumb bomb and make it into a smart bomb” doesn’t provide a lot of reassurance that innocent civilians aren’t killed indiscriminately by such weapons. And Israel had pretty liberal rules of engagement in this conflict. That is to say, too often the Israelis — like the Palestinian factions aiming rockets at them — failed to make distinctions between combatants and civilians, according to a report from Breaking the Silence, compiled of testimony of Israeli Defense Forces soldiers entitled “This is How We Fought in Gaza 2014” released May 4.
At any rate, I’m hoping that the questions that I did ask Roey Gilad might shed a little light on Israeli-American relations and how defense industry business is conducted in this time of fractured government and cynicism.
NUVO: I’d like you to talk about your role as Consul General.
THE HONORABLE ROEY GILAD: I’m the Consul General for Israel and my office is in Chicago but from Chicago I cover eleven states. Actually the Midwest except Ohio… Indiana is very close to us geographically and environmentally. I also accompanied Governor Pence when he visited Israel in December. And the first fruit as an outcome is this meeting. This is the first fruit, this meeting of defense industry representatives. The seed was planted in December only four months ago in a meeting between Governor Pence and the heads of SIBAT.
NUVO: What are some examples of defense cooperation?
GILAD: There are a few things that are happening but the whole idea of having such a visit is to develop it. So as you can see, there were representatives here from Rolls Royce, from Raytheon, from companies that anyway are working together with Israel. Most of the people here already have some business in Israel, but the whole idea of having this road show is to open it into a new horizon. This specific delegation, before they came here, they went to Mississippi, Philly. Indianapolis was the third stop.
NUVO: Governor Pence was talking about the amount of restricted air space in Indiana. Is this a plus?
GILAD: This was discussed at length at the beginning. You have all kinds of sites all over Indiana. There is cooperation…between the Indiana National Guard and the Israeli Home Defense Command. Israeli teams are coming to Indiana every year to train here and representatives of the Indiana National Guard are going to Israel.
NUVO: There’s also police cooperation. Sometimes police departments send individuals over there?
GILAD: I’m more aware of the cooperation between the two armies. Look, I think it is like the governor said… It’s the combination of the very decent infrastructure you can find for the industry and the very open and friendly attitude of the people generally and vis-à-vis Israel in specific… Other companies like Eli Lilly, they already have business in Israel. Israeli defense industry until lately was mainly focused at Washington because this was where the big money [was located]. Opening a chapter opening an avenue vis-à-vis the states, this is something new... We just started it last year.
NUVO: There’s this notion that I’ve heard of hasbara, [public diplomacy] promoting positive aspects of Israel and there was the Gaza war over the summer. Were there any negative repercussions? Is that something that you deal with in your position?
GILAD: Look, I’m not sure that the two things are connected. I believe that bilateral business is the peak of diplomacy. I said at the beginning that business people are the best diplomats. I’ve been a diplomat for 25 years but I’m actually amateur. They are the professionals. Businessmen are diplomats. Last summer we had some rough times. It’s funny that you mention it… We are hosting a one day conference in Chicago at the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago under the title of Urban Warfare [which took place on May 7] and we are going to speak about the war last summer, Operation Protective Edge, the operative dimension, the ethical dimension and the legal dimension. So yes we had an issue last summer, we’re addressing this issue, but it has no connection with the visit today.
NUVO: But in your larger role as a consul that is something that you deal with, is it not?
GILAD: I do, yes.
NUVO: Good business is good politics, is that what you’re saying?
GILAD: Look, my job in a nutshell is to represent Israeli interests in the US and to protect them so everything that falls under this umbrella is part of my business so of course what I try to do most of my time is to promote business and I try to be proactive. But sometimes I have to play defense...
NUVO: I’ve reported on people like [vociferous critics of Israel] Ilan Pappé and Norman Finkelstein, I can agree with them on some things, disagree with them on others. One of the issues that came up when I was talking with the [Indianapolis] Jewish Community Relations Council was about balance and trying to get a balance of perspectives. Do you find yourself in this mix trying to get the Israeli point of view across in universities in particular?
GILAD: Yeah I do it quite a lot… I believe that generally speaking in the Midwest we meet the basic understanding for our geopolitical concerns, our very unique geopolitical situation. People basically understand the challenges that Israel is facing. I never say in my public addresses that Israel is a perfect place. However, I say I don’t know any other democracy in the west that is being challenged day in and day out as the state of Israel… I have full confidence that the state will prevail and we will know how to face existentially all of those challenges… I believe in the idea and the vision that the Jewish people should, are entitled to have sovereign, secure, national entity somewhere in the Middle East, and I think basically that’s my drive. Everything we do here is to cement the relationship between Israel and the Midwest so this relationship makes both Israel and the Midwest stronger.