Yinam Cohen and Mark Davidoff at The Fisher Group office in Southfield.
Yinam Cohen and Mark Davidoff at The Fisher Group office in Southfield. (Jackie Headapohl)

Yinam Cohen has his eye on Michigan-Israel business opportunities.

In late October, the new U.S. Consul General of Israel to the Midwest Yinam Cohen was in Metro Detroit to attend the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah’s Annual Dinner.

The next day, he joined Mark Davidoff, president and CEO of The Fisher Group, for lunch and conversation at his Southfield office. Davidoff presented Cohen with a gift, the autobiography of Max Fisher, The Quiet Diplomat.

Cohen, who replaced Aviv Ezra this summer, was enjoying his first visit to the state and already talking about returning to enjoy a Detroit Pistons game one day. Here are some highlights of their conversation.

BACKGROUND
Q: Could you share a little bit about your background?

I was born in Jerusalem. My parents were born in Jerusalem. My grandparents immigrated to Jerusalem in the 1930s from Egypt, from Yemen. I feel very much committed to continue this trend. My son is the fourth generation of our family born in Jerusalem, although he left when he was 1 month old to join us in my diplomatic career. 

I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs 15 years ago and served three years in Bogota, Colombia, where my second daughter was born. After three years in Colombia, we moved to Berlin where I served as a spokesperson of the embassy. There, I had my third child, who is a fifth-grader now in Chicago. 

After five years abroad, we came back to Israel. I served as a policy adviser to the director general of the Ministry. My last mission was in Madrid, Spain, where I served as the deputy ambassador. It was three amazing years, very challenging from the political aspects. 

Then, my family returned to Israel. I had some jobs in Israel, but I think the most exciting one was being senior policy adviser to then-Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. Now, I’m in Chicago. It’s my first diplomatic mission in the United States. I have the biggest territory because I cover nine Midwestern states [Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin], which are very big and dispersed. I’m so very happy to be here. 

Q: What are your first impressions?

Midwesterners are very nice people, very embracing, very warm and very down to earth. Chicago is a wonderful city, very welcoming, Zionistic and very supporting. Being the top representative of Israel in the Midwest, I consider myself a member of the Jewish community there. Our kids go to Jewish day schools in Chicago.

Q: What have been your impressions of Michigan?

I had breakfast this morning with the board of the Michigan Israel Business Accelerator. I’m very happy about this partnership. I visited the Startup Nation Central Europe before living in Chicago, and they spoke a lot about the connection to Michigan. 

PRIORITIES
Q: What are your priorities?

Business is a major one. At the consul, our mission is to serve as a facilitator for business in the Midwest, in Israel. I see myself not only as an ambassador of Israel here, but also as an ambassador of the Midwest in Israel, because I want to make more and more Israelis understand that there’s a potential here for business.

There’s great potential here for traditional sectors in Israel, such as agriculture and water management, but also potential for more advanced manufacturing. Although Israel does not produce cars, it is a beautiful hub of a smart mobility innovation. There are so many Israeli startups and companies in this respect and the connections already. Both General Motors and Ford have research and development centers in Israel, for example. 

I hope to be of assistance in bridging the cultural divide between Israelis and folks in the U.S. There are some protocol differences Israelis need to know about, which we hope to facilitate. 

Q: Any other priorities?

Like our or current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, I have two strong messages regarding Israeli-U.S. relations. The first is bipartisanship is back. The new government is going to invest a lot in cultivating its relationships with both the Democratic and Republican parties. We see great coordination, communication and cooperation between the new government in Israel and the relatively new administration in the U.S.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had his first White House visit about a month ago. It was very successful. We were so encouraged by the words of President Joe Biden after the meeting. Biden referred to the fact that this is the most diverse government in the history of Israel — something we’re very proud of. We are also encouraged by Biden’s strong commitment to the security of Israel and specifically to continuous cooperation on the Iron Dome and his total commitment to guarantee that Iran never acquires nuclear military capabilities.

We had a strong week in Washington, D.C. Our foreign minister met with his colleague, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Vice President Kamala Harris, which was great. He also took part in a mini-summit, organized by Secretary Blinken, with the United Arab Emirates. This was a very strong signal to the commitment of the new administration to continue the Abraham Accords and to bring into the tent new Arab states, perhaps from the Gulf area or East Africa. We hope to hear some good news in the coming months on that respect.

Q: What makes the Abraham Accords a foundation for building a greater coalition?

It’s an agreement that comes out of a strong sense of real partnership between Arab countries and Israel. We have had peace with Egypt and with Jordan for many years now. It is a very important peace … but more of a peace between governments and less of a peace between peoples. This is very different with the new peace agreements because it is first and foremost peace between the peoples. 

Thousands of Israelis flew to the Emirates. We have Emirati students all over Israel, which is super exciting. They are studying Hebrew, sciences, technology, innovation. It is so amazing to see Emirati students wearing traditional clothes together with Israelis at our universities.

The level of enthusiasm in these new countries is spectacular. They really believe in peace between the peoples. It’s not just for the sake of security. So this is something that is very new, very unique and very encouraging for us because that means that it’s going to last.

Yinam Cohen, Consul General of Israel to the Midwest.
Yinam Cohen, Consul General of Israel to the Midwest. Photo Courtesy of Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest
CHALLENGES
Q: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges that Israel faces right now?

Our biggest challenges are internal. First there’s COVID, of course. This is something that is not unique to Israel. We’re doing quite well right now. The trend is very positive. That means that the gates of Israel will probably open very soon making it much easier to enter. 

Secondly, we have had an unprecedented lack of stability in Israel for two or more years because we held three elections during that time. We had no state budget for more than two years, and that had a serious effect, both for the society and economy of Israel. 

Now we have an opportunity for change because we have a new diverse government. For the first time in the history of Israel, there is an Arab Muslim party that is part of the coalition. The government recently approved a bill that will provide slightly less than $10 billion to support the Arab sectors in Israel to facilitate access to higher education, to employment, to innovation, to infrastructure and to housing. This is something that probably should have been done before, but I’m very excited that this government is doing it right now. I believe that it’s going to bring very positive change, not only to the Arab population of Israel, but to all of Israel. 

Then we have some regional challenges. The biggest one is, of course, Iran, which is a source of instability. Not only is its nuclear program a serious strategic threat to Israel, but to the whole region. Through its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran creates permanent instability in the region. This is a source of great concern for all the moderate Arab countries. The Israeli government is determined to make sure Iran never gets nuclear weapons, and we’re thankful to the United States administration for its commitment on that as well. 

Q: How does Israel feel about the U.S. returning to the negotiations table with Iran?

Israel is not against the U.S. negotiating with Iran. The question is: What will they get out of this negotiation? We want to know that Iran never has access to nuclear weapons — not just 10 or 15 years, but never. We want a guarantee that any agreement with Iran deals with all the major questions: its ballistic capabilities, its capabilities to launch missiles, its capabilities to destabilize the region by nurturing terrorist organizations across the borders of Israel with its neighbors. 

Hezbollah today has more than 100,000 missiles directed toward Israel. I think Israel’s deterrence capabilities are strong enough to make them think not twice, but 10 times before they launched those missiles, but their potential capabilities are very, very worrying. So, this is something that we also have to take into account.

Q: How does Israel feel about the U.S. rejoining the U.N. Human Rights Council? 

The U.N. Human Rights Council has proven to be very biased toward Israel. One of its agenda items, Item 4 — “Human Rights Situations that Require the Council’s Attention” — discusses any human rights violations around the world, be it in China, in Japan, in France, in the United States, Canada or wherever. Then it also has Item 7 — “Human Rights Situation in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories” — which is dedicated only to one country, to one state in the world: Israel. 

For example, since its establishment in 2006, this council adopted 90 resolutions against Israel. This is more than the number of all the resolutions that were adopted on Iran, Syria, China, Venezuela and Cuba together. 

And if you ask any citizen of the world where he or she would prefer to live: in Israel or in Venezuela, Iran, Cuba and North Korea, the answer is clear.    

Israel is a great place to live. It’s open. It’s a vibrant democracy. Do do we make mistakes? Yes, it’s totally okay to debate on that, but not to single Israel out and delegitimize it. The council has gone way, way, way too far.

We have made some progress, especially with European partners, in getting this item cut because it is totally crazy. But there’s so much more to be done. I hope that by joining the council, the United States will be able to fix that. 

That’s our expectation. 

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