Left to right: Rep. Ro Khanna, entrepreneur Liat Portal and Israel Consul General Shlomi Kofman
Left to right: Rep. Ro Khanna, entrepreneur Liat Portal and Israel Consul General Shlomi Kofman at the Israel-Silicon Valley Roundtable on Entrepreneurship, Dec. 3, 2018 in Sunnyvale

Rep. Khanna and Israeli consul talk tech and spar on Israel

First they argued. Then they lit Hanukkah candles.

Congressman Ro Khanna and Israeli Consul General Shlomi Kofman had a brief political skirmish during a public forum on technology, then bonded over candles on the second night of Hanukkah.

The “Israel-Silicon Valley Roundtable on Entrepreneurship,” held Dec. 3 in Sunnyvale, featured six Bay Area panelists who focused on how high-tech products can be used to improve society, and on the risks for a world ever more dependent on electronic delivery of communications, education and health care.

Khanna, a Democrat elected in November 2016 whose district includes parts of the South Bay and East Bay, moderated the event. He asked each panelist to discuss the future of tech, and ways in which it might better serve different populations.

The mostly upbeat, optimistic view of days to come was interrupted briefly during a question-and-answer session with the small audience when Khanna was asked for his views on the U.S.-Israel relationship. He has made statements in support of a two-state solution and against new settlements, and he opposed moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, calling it “dangerous.” He also co-sponsored legislation introduced in 2017 that would block Israel from using U.S. aid for “the military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill treatment of Palestinian children.”

“I think President Trump has done great long-term damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship by politicizing it,” Khanna said. “With due respect, I think Prime Minister Netanyahu did damage to the relationship by politicizing it.

“In the past the U.S.-Israel relationship has not been politicized. And I think what it will require to try to build a strong relationship is leadership that will consider all of the perspectives and depoliticize it and take it out of partisanship, and I think that is very possible.”

Rather than respond immediately to Khanna, Kofman pursed his lips and encouraged another audience member to ask a question. Then the consul general addressed the congressman, first agreeing that bipartisanship is a foundation of the relationship and then defending moves by his boss and by the American president.

Israel and the United States have bigger internal problems than they have problems with each other.

“Every step Netanyahu did was in the national interest of the State of Israel, and he did what he did to preserve the nature of the strong relationship. The recent decisions that came out of Washington are very well received in Israel, including the Iranian issue and Jerusalem,” Kofman said. “To have Jerusalem recognized as Israel’s capital, this is something that 95 percent of Israelis see as a positive step.”

Khanna said the two would “agree to disagree,” and a few minutes later they joined in lighting a hanukkiah and leading the room in prayer and song.

One of the panelists, venture capitalist Irwin Federman, said the U.S.-Israel relationship is not the biggest problem facing either country.

“I think both Israel and the United States have bigger internal problems than they have problems with each other,” said Federman, a former tech executive who became a general partner at U.S. Venture Partners.

When asked how to bridge the world’s digital divide and to make tech more of a force for good, panelist David Berger, an attorney with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, said the key is government leadership.

“Government can be a force for good, the majority of problems in our society can only be fixed if government steps in. We’ve really stigmatized the government and said government is bad,” he said. “What we need to again have is significant government leadership that can bring us together in this age of new technology.”

And Alon Matas, founder of the online counseling service BetterHelp, said the beauty of tech is that it gives people who are not experts in a field the chance to create change by trying untraditional methods.

“A common theme in Silicon Valley and Israel is you have people who try to solve problems they know nothing about — and I’m saying that in a good way,” said Matas, who also co-founded Yazamiya, a forum for Israeli entrepreneurs in the Bay Area. “There’s a lot of value with people who know nothing about a problem and look at it from a fresh perspective.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.