Gov. John Bel Edwards meets with Israeli water, cybersecurity leaders and visits 'Iron Dome' base

Oct 29, 2018

TEL AVIV — Gov. John Bel Edwards had another busy day in Israel on Monday, meeting with water issues experts, cyber security leaders and Israeli soldiers stationed on a military base near the Gaza Strip that is part of the nation's "Iron Dome" defense system.

Edwards, who arrived in Israel on a economic development and partnership mission on Saturday, is scheduled to continue his trip in Tel Aviv until he departs on Thursday. He has a series of meetings scheduled with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday and business leaders throughout the week.

After a day focused primarily on cultural activities on Sunday – Edwards attended Mass at the historic Church of the Holy Sepulcher, took part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the holocaust museum in Jerusalem and toured the Western Wall on his first full day in the country – Edwards' focus shifted heavily to research and innovation initiatives on Monday.

Edwards took part in a ceremony marking a new partnership between the Water Institute of the Gulf and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to research water issues.

"We're going to let science dictate what we do – not politics," he said. "We are developing the most expertise in water in the country."

Leaders of the effort say the relationship, formalized in a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, signed on the BGU campus in Be'er Sheva, will allow researchers to harness their collective knowledge of flooding, fresh water access, irrigation and other shared priorities.

"I really believe this MOU is just the beginning – it's not just a piece of paper," said Noam Weisbrod, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research.

"This is really, really important."

BGU established its institute devoted to water issues two decades ago. The Water Institute of the Gulf, based in Baton Rouge, was established in 2011.

The Louisiana-based Water Institute formed a partnership last year with Deltares, a research institute studying water issues in the Netherlands.

Water Institute President and CEO Justin Ehrenwerth said the new partnership with the Israeli institute solidifies a key alliance on the issue.

"We're both born of existential crisis," he said.

Louisiana currently is losing about a football field of land every 100 minutes into the Gulf Coast and has suffered multiple severe weather events, including 2016's historic flooding that affected thousands of people in the Baton Rouge area and across the state. Ehrenwerth praised Israel as a place that "made the desert bloom" with its focus on water technology and innovation.

"Our future and future generations depend on it," he said of efforts to get a hold of how water impacts people's lives in Louisiana.

Edwards said he's concerned that the state is losing its land and fresh water supply, has experienced multiple catastrophic flooding events and has placed little emphasis historically on sustainability.

"We've developed really bad habits in Louisiana," he said. "We have to be proactive because we are in a race against time."

Edwards, a Democrat who took office in 2016, established a cybersecurity task force last year to plot out ways that the state can be more secure and foster a business climate from an emphasis on cybersecurity.

He and others that are taking part in the Israel trip met with the director general of the Israel National Cyber Directorate, Yigal Unna, who explained how his country has become a leader in the field.

Among other efforts, Israel has started a program that is essentially a 911 service for people to report suspected cybersecurity attacks and ask for assistance.

"The faster we can identify 'patient zero' the faster we can contain it," Unna said, pointing to high-tech screens showing where cases are tracked and filed. "It's not just a public service we give."

Louisiana National Guard Adj. Gen. Glenn Curtis, a co-chair of the cybersecurity commission who is on the Israel trip, said the state faces some obstacles in addressing security vulnerabilities. "If an attack happens in a utility company, they don't want to talk about it," he said.

Unna said the issue requires trust to be built. "It's all the time building it," he said.

Just after sundown, Edwards and the envoy traveled to a base visible to the Gaza Strip border where Israeli Defense Force soldiers are tasked with monitoring for air strikes and launching interceptions.

Israeli leaders defended the need for the small, portable base and defense rocket launcher as an armed soldier outlined the process that the band of mostly 20-somethings follow to protect the country.

"It saves lives," said Gilad Katz, Israel's consul general to the southwestern United States. "We don't take that for granted."