Silicon Valley accord recycles myth of Israel’s green record

California Governor Jerry Brown (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign memorandum of understanding. Justin Short Office of the Governor of California

In another effort to secure Israel’s image as a leader in technology and “green” industries, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week visited Silicon Valley to sign a cooperation agreement with Jerry Brown, the governor of California.

The agreement describes its purpose as “establishing a formal relationship” between the two regions — which traded over $4 billion in 2013 — and which US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro introduced as “the world’s leading centers of innovation.”

While there is no dollar amount pinned to the agreement (formally known as a “memorandum of understanding”), it is being touted as a “boost” to cooperation and a way to “build their respective strengths in research and technology to confront critical problems we both face, such as water scarcity, cybersecurity and climate change.”

“What a wonderful furthering of the deep connections that Israel has — not just with America — but with California in particular, and Silicon Valley is a very important example of all that,” Brown stated at the signing ceremony.

After the two leaders signed the accord, Netanyahu commended Brown for divesting California pensions from Iran and “investing in Israel.”

The growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has defined the animus for Netanyahu’s five-day visit to the US, timed to correspond with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual policy conference in Washington, DC.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu devoted the last quarter of his keynote speech at the conference to casting aspersions on the movement — insisting BDS was fated to fail and equating it with modern-day anti-Semitism.

Bigger than boycotts?

Less than two weeks prior to this speech, Netanyahu revealed the source of his confidence in the ultimate doom of the BDS movement, crowing that “the capacity to innovate is a great treasure of profound economic value in today’s world… And that is something that is bigger than all these boycotters could possibly address” (“Netanyahu says Israeli hi-tech stronger than boycotters,” Reuters, 17 February 2014).

Netanyahu’s trip comes on the heels of several key victories claimed by BDS supporters. In late February, Amnesty International published its most condemnatory report on Israel to date, and called on all governments to cease the sale or transfer of weapons to Israel’s military.

Amnesty’s report came not long after the dispute between Oxfam and Scarlett Johansson over the Hollywood star’s lucrative advertising deal with SodaStream, a company making fizzy drink machines in an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.

The two-page agreement between Israel and California states that both will focus on water conservation, alternative energy and cybersecurity.

Unveiling no specific projects, the signing ceremony — held in the heart of Silicon Valley at the Computer History Museum — served as a showy opportunity for Netanyahu to shore up his country’s ailing reputation.

The collaboration will be facilitated through California’s Innovation Hub (iHub) program.

Brian Peck, an iHub representative, told The Electronic Intifada that his office and the two governments had been preparing the agreement for the last couple of months and that it was “mutually initiated.”

Governor Brown hinted at the possibility of this agreement earlier this year, when he spoke to the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles, stating: “We’re going to make another initiative, on alternative energy, on electric batteries, on cars. There’s a lot of things that California and Israel can lead together, in a partnership for creative change for a sustainable future” (“Gov. Brown: ‘California and Israel can lead together,” Jewish Journal, 30 January 2014).

Hoary tropes

Despite the hype produced by the memorandum of understanding (MoU), it is unclear what it will achieve.

“The MoU does not launch a specific project, it is a commitment by both governments to create opportunities and to encourage businesses and collaboration from both countries,” Peck said.

Israel already has a strong presence in Silicon Valley, with as many as 150 start-ups.

The agreement espouses several hoary tropes of Israeli propaganda, including its identity as a “start-up nation,” its status as leader in “green” and “clean” tech, and as an innovator in water conservation — the last holding particular sway in parched California, a state that is experiencing its driest year in recorded history.

“Israel doesn’t have a water problem,” Netanyahu boldly stated on Wednesday, “and you may ask how is that possible. It’s because we’re the number one recycler of waste-water in the world — more than 90 percent of our water — because we have drip irrigation, we prevent leakage in our pipes, because we have desalination.”

When discussing Israel’s “innovative” use of water, rarely does the media mention the state’s exploitation of Palestinian land and its seizure of water resources.

The Oslo accords enabled Israel to exploit 80 percent of water collected from drilling, agricultural wells, springs and rainfall in the West Bank, and selling the remaining 20 percent back to Palestinians at full price (“The Israeli ‘watergate’ scandal,” Haaretz, 16 February 2014).

Furthermore, in more than 60 percent of the West Bank — a zone known as Area C that includes Israel’s main settlement blocs — Israel prevents Palestinians from building water-collecting facilities, including rainwater cisterns.

Promoting falsehoods

California has already partnered with Israel to pursue “green alternatives” to energy. Two Israeli firms, Solel and BrightSource (now based in Oakland), were contracted to build record-breaking giant solar energy parks in California’s Mojave Desert.

However, the once-vaunted technology has failed expectations. The solar panel technology has been outmoded by cheaper and better alternatives.

In addition to being built on Native peoples’ land, BrightSource’s solar energy panels in the Mojave desert are killing birds, including protected species such as golden eagles.

“The BrightSource system appears to be scorching birds that fly through the intense heat surrounding the towers, which can reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit,” The Wall Street Journal has reported (“The $2.2 billion bird-scorching solar project,” 12 February 2014).

The Israeli government’s Economic Mission to the West Coast played a strong role in arranging the memorandum. That office actively promotes Israeli business in California.

Next week it will host the “Cleantech Forum” in San Francisco.

Outside Wednesday’s meeting in Mountain View, a number of protesters gathered with signs and Palestinians flags.

“The main point of the protest is to tell [Governor] Jerry Brown not to sign this deal with Israel,” Donna Wallach, a Palestine solidarity campaigner based in San Jose, told The Electronic Intifada.

“Israel commits war crimes on a second-by-second basis, and any company that does business with the government of Israel is complicit in war crimes.”

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @CharESilver.