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Interview

Silicon Valley lawmaker seeking to spread the wealth looks to Israel for inspiration

Congressman Ro Khanna, visiting in Israel as part of Pelosi-led delegation, says he’s eager to see how country expands innovation to ‘left-out’ communities

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Rep. Ro Khanna, chairman of the Subcommittee on the Environment, questions the witnesses during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Rep. Ro Khanna, chairman of the Subcommittee on the Environment, questions the witnesses during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Congressman Ro Khanna arrived in Israel Tuesday as his his latest book was hitting the shelves in the United States.

With “Dignity in a Digital Age” already an Amazon bestseller, the Jewish state seems like an apt place to be for the representative of California’s 17th District, which covers the southern San Francisco Bay area and encompasses a large chunk of Silicon Valley.

“This book is similar to ‘Start-Up Nation,'” Khanna told The Times of Israel, referring to the 2009 bestseller that examined Israel’s rapid economic growth, during a phone interview on Monday as he headed to the airport for the junket.

“It’s all about getting technology and entrepreneurship into places in the United States that are left out,” he said.

“Start-Up Nation” similarly illuminated the Jewish state’s ability to expand beyond Tel Aviv to places like the Negev, he said, attributing it to “Israel’s extraordinary entrepreneurial and innovation culture.”

On paper, Khanna’s appetite for spreading tech growth outside its traditional hubs does not mesh with the fact that he represents Silicon Valley in Congress. But Khanna believes promoting tech jobs outside his district will be critical to building a sustainable economy on a national and global scale.

“There are going to be 25 million digital jobs in the United States and 100 million globally. We can’t just have those be in five or six metropolitan areas,” argued the three-term congressman.

Israeli startup entrepreneurs at work at UpWest Lab’s Silicon Valley facility (Courtesy)

Khanna is one of seven Democrats who arrived in Israel Tuesday as part of a delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Reps. Adam Schiff, Ted Deutch, Barbara Lee, Bill Keating, Eric Swalwell and Andy Kim are the delegation’s other members, representing a mix of figures from both the party’s liberal and conservative flanks. A rising star in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, Khanna placed himself near the middle of the spectrum among lawmakers on the trip.

The group is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who is currently in Bahrain, President Isaac Herzog, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and other senior Israeli leaders. They will also travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Khanna said he’s held a number of conversations with Israeli entrepreneurs aimed at expanding US economic ties with the Jewish state and he is looking to use his second trip to the Holy Land to build on those discussions and learn more on the matter.

The US lawmaker said his goal was spreading technology, entrepreneurship and innovation to build an economy that is inclusive for all populations. Success on this front will help mitigate ever-intensifying political polarization in the US and around the globe, Khanna said.

The new Israeli government can find common cause with that end. Bennett describes the politically and ethnically diverse makeup of his coalition as an antidote to the polarization that dragged the country through a loop of four elections in less than two years.

Khanna agreed that the new government is cause for optimism, but noted that he looked forward to hearing how it plans to promote Palestinian rights, even if there might be political limitations given the makeup of the coalition.

While the coalition includes centrist and left-wing parties that support Palestinian statehood, Bennett is an avowed opponent of conceding land to the Palestinians and refuses to meet with Abbas, pointing to the PA president’s instigation of criminal probes against Israel at The Hague.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (Composite/AP)

“Though there are [disagreements], the fact [that Bennett is] from a younger, a new generation… there certainly was intrigue in my district in Silicon Valley by his background, given his appreciation of technology and entrepreneurship,” Khanna said.

Before he entered politics, Bennett co-founded and served as CEO of Cyota, a software company, the sale of which made him a multimillionaire.

Khanna admitted to being particularly excited about meeting with Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, lauding her political savviness in bringing the Labor Party back to relevance. Khanna also said was intrigued by Lapid, “who I’ve heard wants to make progress” on the Palestinian front as well.

The future of the Democratic Party

“I think this is going to be a very interesting trip because you have a very senior, diverse Congressional delegation and one that will help shape what the US-Israel relationship will look like… in the two years ahead,” Khanna said.

“We’re going into it with hope that there’s a real commitment [from Israel] to pursuing peace, to pursuing de-escalation of conflict and to securing the rights of everyone,” he continued. “There will be candid discussions of these issues, but this delegation believes in the US-Israel relationship… [so] the candid conversations will be among friends.”

Khanna has spoken out in the past against Israeli settlement building, settler violence, home demolitions and evictions of Palestinians, while also supporting a strengthening of the US-Israel alliance. “It’s very important from a national security perspective, from an economic perspective and from a moral perspective,” he said Monday.

“I believe in a Jewish homeland, but I also have been very outspoken on human rights,” he said, calling himself a “pro-Israel progressive.”

As a small but growing flank of Democrats moves away from Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, Khanna said the positions he stakes on the issue are ones that can have broad support in the party.

“The Democratic Party will remain committed to a strong US-Israel relationship. What has changed is that now there is an ability to articulate and stand up for human rights in a much stronger way, which is now accepted by the mainstream in our party,” Khanna said.

While he downplayed the influence of that critical minority, the California congressman said it represents “a voice that is part of the very broad, multiracial, multiethnic democracy that America is.”

“We should be open to all perspectives,” he said, “but if you ask me what is the Democratic Party ultimately going to converge around in the next few years, I’d argue that it will be what I’m articulating — a strong commitment to the US-Israel relationship, but one that is firmly rooted in human rights and unafraid to speak about things we believe will bring peace to the region and help establish a two-state solution.”

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