AlmaLinks: Former Florida Congressman builds bridges to Israel
Young Israeli entrepreneurs heard former Florida congressman Ron Klein’s’ insights into the US-Israel relationship at an AlmaLinks event last month in Tel Aviv. Along with advice on how to bring their businesses to the American market, he also gave the inside scoop on the current race for the White House.
Klein, a Democrat, spent 18 years in elected office, serving in both the Florida State House and Senate, the latter as minority leader. In 2006 he was elected to Congress for Florida’s 22nd District, covering West Palm Beach and made infamous as the center of the disputed “hanging chads” of the 2000 Presidential election.
After leaving office in 2011, he joined international law firm Holland & Knight as head of the Israel division, where he helps businesses from the Start-up Nation come to America. Strengthening US-Israel relations has always been a political and personal passion for this former Congressman.
He said: “I was talking to a group of tech guys in Tel Aviv so the initial conversation was focused on that industry, but afterwards we talked about more general business ideas. Things like visas, immigration issues, trade issues and the strength of the US economy all have a big impact on the Israeli economy and Israels businesses.
“These economic ties — the job creation, Israeli products, mergers and takeovers — are all important in creating another bridge in the relationship between the US and Israel. We have strong military, political and intelligence relationships but the economic ties are also important because they increase the support that is at the base of this relationship and go beyond just the political level and Washington.
“I think this relationship has been enhanced over the last 18 years. I’m also on the advisory board of the US Chamber of Commerce which has recently started its own US-Israel advocacy effort so we are seeing across the board a deepening of these economic ties. Also many of these American businesses have no Jewish connection at all. They just see an Israeli company that they want to work with and that can help improve their business.”
Klein, who attended law school at Case Western Reserve University, heads a team of 15 at the Holland and Knight Israel practice and he comes to the country several times a year to help work with companies and build business.
He said: “When I left Congress I wanted to find a new role in strengthening this economic relationship. The firm already had a practice engaging between US and Israeli companies but they wanted to elevate it and they thought I could help do that. When I interviewed at Holland and Knight my managing partner already knew about my involvement in Israel advocacy – both on the personal and political level – so he thought I would be a good fit. The firm’s practice has been well established for many years, but in the last three years has significantly increased.
“I enjoy this work on a personal level too. To me supporting Israel is a passion based on my family history – coming from Europe and all the things that happened there – and like many Jewish families Israel is a core part of my belief system so my political life involved sharing and working on that.”
He added: “We have assisted AlmaLinks in setting up infrastructure in America as a pro-bono activity. It’s a great organisation with a lot of potential. It is a relatively new organisation but it’s concept of taking successful businessmen and mentoring others to follow in their footsteps as well as engaging with the Jewish community around the world just builds more bridges and Israeli connections. So I think it has a lot of merit.”
Klein, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, had his first involvement with government in 1992 after moving to Florida when he decided to try and improve the state’s education system, which he managed to do with a little help from Steven Spielberg.
He said: “My mother was a teacher and when I saw the quality of education in Florida I was not particularly thrilled. I decided to run for office and see if I could play a role with improving education. The other thing that drove me to be involved in politics was combating anti-Semitism and supporting Israel. I had been involved as a member in groups like the Jewish Federation, Israel Bonds and the ADL before.
“In 1994 I sponsored a bill to institute Holocaust education in Florida. A number of survivors had come to me to say how there was very little information about The Holocaust. It was just a footnote in textbooks saying 6 million Jews had been killed. They were offended and felt like it was a distortion of history and they wanted to do something about it. So I filed a bill in the Florida legislature and couldn’t get a hearing on it.
“This was the same year that Schindler’s List came out. It was one of the first commercial versions of the Holocaust and people felt like it was a very powerful movie and it won a lot of accolades. When Spielberg said in his acceptance speech that education is the most important thing, I called him just out of the sky and he ended up helping and setting up a special showing of Schindler’s List for our legislature. Ultimately we passed a bill requiring teaching of the Holocaust in Public Schools and we passed it on Yom HaShoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day], coincidentally. This was the most important thing I did in all my years in politics and it was very meaningful to me and my community. That’s what motivated me in my 18 years in government.
“In Congress I was the vice-chairman for the Middle East sub-committee of Foreign Affairs so I spent a lot of time meeting with our government, the Israeli government, military leaders, political leaders and intelligence leaders to try and help shape the policy in the United States. On a personal level I’ve always been very active as a pro-Israel person and my personal interest in congress was making sure other members could also be Israel supporters.
“However, you’re obviously dealing with lots of other countries in the Middle East as well so it gave me a very interesting perspective on a lot of different issues. I met with their ambassadors, with their leaders and heard them out on everything from Iran to the Palestinian issue, terrorism to nuclear proliferation. Interestingly many of them line up quietly and behind the scenes with Israel but publicly they are much less willing to come forward and speak out. Some of them are afraid of their own populations and some are afraid of terrorist groups that will single them out. Definitely you see that behind the scenes everyone wants to try and stabilise things in the Middle East.”
Klein spent four years in the State House before being elected to the Florida Senate in 1996. In 2007 he unseated 13-term incumbent Clay Shaw to take his place in the House of Representatives. Klein is now covering the current Presidential Election as a political commentator for ABC Florida and shared with the AlmaLinks Tel Aviv chapter some of his expertise.
He said: “They wanted me to talk about the US elections, because there is a lot of interest with what’s going on. In Israel everybody watches and weighs every word that the candidates say because the US is a principal ally so everyone wants to know who this President is going to be – and as you would expect everyone has at least one or two opinions.
“From my observation the Republican side has had a little more colour to it than the Democratic side this cycle. Both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have basically said they will not support the other if he wins the candidacy, these are pretty big statements and it shows how deep seated these disagreements are between the candidates themselves, and then their supporters.
“It looks like Donald Trump will probably get the nomination, although it’s possible something could happen at the convention to stop that in which case he’ll decide to run as a third party candidate and take a lot of support with him.
“I have to say a lot of Republicans I know on Capitol Hill aren’t very enamoured with his brand of politics but a lot of voters really like his straight-talking style. However, again a lot of people like Trump’s tough guy image. There’s a certain Israeli-mentality there, however those same people also said they aren’t exactly sure where Trump stands. He’s said he wants to be neutral on Palestinian-Israeli issues. He talks like he doesn’t necessarily understand just being a rough guy doesn’t get things done in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, it’s a lot more complicated than that. You’re not just going to bully people around and expect them to be pushovers.
“I think on the Democrat side Hillary Clinton will be the candidate. But Bernie Sanders is still battling it out and he’s not going away which is interesting because we’ve got the first ever Jewish candidate in the US, he’s like this Jewish grandfatherly figure, and he’s got a huge following by non-Jews all over the country.
“When I was in Israel I found out the Clinton name is pretty well known, thanks to President [Bill] Clinton. He was pretty well thought of in Israel and Hillary has in general a decent following in Israel, also because of some of things she’s done. Overall it’s still really hard to say who the President is going to be.”
Ron Klein is a Partner at Holland & Knight and an Advisor to AlmaLinks.