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With five weeks to go, Emanuel strengthens ties between Chicago and Israel

Chemi Peres and Rahm Emanuel

Chemi Peres, son of former Israeli President Shimon Peres, shakes hands with Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday after signing an international partnership between Chicago and the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation that bears his father’s name. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Chicago’s deep connection to Israel will undoubtedly fade with the retirement of its first Jewish mayor. But Rahm Emanuel is doing what he can to make certain at least some of those ties survive his departure.

On Monday, Emanuel joined Chemi Peres, son of former Israeli President Shimon Peres, in signing a memorandum of understanding aimed at forging an enduring partnership between “technology and innovation ecosystems” in Chicago and Israel.

Their hope is to promote “innovation and entrepreneurship” in Chicago and Israel by pooling the talents of business, academic, civic and government leaders in both places. World Business Chicago will take the lead on this end.

Chemi Peres, a venture capitalist, also runs the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, founded by his late father. The international partnership with Chicago is a first for the Peres Center.

City Hall says Emanuel pitched the concept to Chemi Peres during a 2017 trip to Israel — one of several Emanuel took as mayor.

The memorandum of understanding commits the parties to draft an annual work plan updated every six months and to  “continual knowledge sharing for ensured achievement” with “connections to relevant outside partners.”

But, there’s a caveat. The document “expresses our combined intention but does not create a legally binding agreement or financial commitment.”

For eight years, Emanuel has tried to build Chicago’s tech economy and enhance the city’s reputation as a Silicon Valley of the Midwest.

The mayor expressed confidence that Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot will carry on the partnership with Israel long after he’s gone. He noted that former Mayor Richard M. Daley “did a lot of work on China.”

“I see Lori as building off of this relationship in the way that I also inherited something and, hopefully took it to another level as it relates to Chicago and China,” he said.

Emanuel acknowledged that Israel is more special to him than it ever will be Lightfoot. But he’s confident that “she’ll see what I see.”

“You have a country and, more importantly, an institute dedicated to the very things Chicago is looking to do. She’ll see this to the benefit of the greater Chicago and, therefore, build on it,” he said.

“Will she have the personal passion I have? No. But that’s what drove us to have the first innovation partnership between any city in the United States and the Peres Center. And the benefits will be paid for decades to come.”

Chemi Peres said he’s certain the “partnership will last” even after Emanuel’s retirement because it’s “not pending on an individual.”

“We’d like to see more companies from Israel, more entrepreneurs, more academicians come to Chicago and the other way around,” Peres told the Sun-Times.

“The vision that the mayor told me about the future of Chicago is such that, if Israel is a start-up nation, in many ways Chicago can be the innovation city for creating the smartest and most advanced city in the United States. If that happens, both of us will be very, very happy.”

Emanuel’s pediatrician father Benjamin Emanuel is an Israeli immigrant. The family’s last name was changed to Emanuel, which means “God with us” in Hebrew.

The name change honored Emanuel Auerbach — Benjamin’s brother and the mayor’s uncle — who was killed in 1933 in an altercation with Arabs in Jerusalem.

It’s not the first time Emanuel has tried to forge business ties between Chicago and Israel.

Last month, City Hall announced that, starting in March 2020, El Al Israel Airlines will offer the first non-stop service between O’Hare Airport and Tel Aviv in more than 20 years.

And just days before Emanuel chose political retirement over the uphill battle for a third term, City Hall joined forces with Waze and Chicago-based SpotHero to install at least 400 so-called “Waze Beacons” devices that deliver “Bluetooth-enabled connectivity” in areas where GPS signals can’t reach.

At the time, Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey said the partnership between Chicago-based SpotHero and Israel-based Waze was forged during Emanuel’s trade mission to Israel. SpotHero co-founder and CEO Mark Lawrence was part of the delegation.