Andy David, Israel's Consul General to the Pacific Northwest, gives a talk at the University of Montana's Harold and Priscilla Gilkey Building last week.

While Washington, D.C., headlines warned that President Donald Trump was potentially starting a trade war with Mexico on Thursday, Missoula business leaders were meeting with an Israeli trade representative to discuss possible international deals.

The mixed message was a top question among the participants at Accelerate Montana’s presentation with Israeli Consul General Andy David at the University of Montana. How should a business evaluate an overseas relationship when national governments appear intent on rewriting many of the rules?

“That’s the big question,” said Cody Rose, a UM master's degree student studying business and public administration. Rose had recently returned from a trip to Australia and New Zealand where he was researching sustainable business practices, and was preparing for a trip to Israel in April. He said the uncertain political environment would keep things interesting.

David said in addition to politics, facts on the ground have been changing the business world. In Israel’s case, the recent discovery of huge off-shore natural gas fields along the coasts of Israel, Egypt and Lebanon have given the formerly resource-poor nation a new identity as an energy producer.

“We’re already seeing an impact on the national economy, where natural gas production has boosted GDP growth by 1 percent in 2015,” David said. “That’s prompted changes in the geo-strategic arena around us. We have better relations with Egypt because of the energy economy that affects both of us. We’ve seen reconciliation with Turkey reached through the energy development, because exporting much of that will go through Turkey.”

The Montana World Trade Center is recruiting local business owners to join a trade delegation visit to Israel in April. David said whether they can travel overseas or to the Israeli consulate in San Francisco, opportunities in everything from agriculture to cybersecurity await partnerships.

“There’s a lot of trust that needs to happen when doing business across the world,” said conference attendee Tara Blyth of Kamut International, a specialty wheat producer based in Montana. “I didn’t know a lot about the Israeli business climate. Their government really helps out entrepreneurs and bears a lot of the risk. That model doesn’t exist in the states in the same way.”

Pam Voth said she’s rethinking her photography business in light of the world trade situation. Her Tree and Sky Media Arts firm was getting ready to attract foreign tourists to take photo safaris of places like Yellowstone National Park in search of wildlife. But since the change of presidential administrations, she’s hearing that it may become harder for foreigners to get visas to visit the United States.

“I may not be able to bring business to Montana,” Voth said. “I may have to start looking at taking people to other places like India or South Africa.”

On the other hand, web developer Nora McDougall-Collins said her international clientele already was used to rolling with changing border rules. Dealing with intellectual property raised far fewer issues when countries started considering trade wars.

“I’ve got clients from Canada who ended up doing their work in Thailand,” McDougall-Collins said. “Where we are is kind of irrelevant. And being a big corporation is one thing, while being a small business is totally different.”

Montana World Affairs Council member Bob Seidenschwarz helped arrange David’s visit to Missoula, and was involved in the Israeli’s previous tour a year ago. While political conditions have changed radically in the intervening 12 months, he said business has to keep going.

“They still have goods and products they have to get out the door,” Seidenschwarz said. “There may be additional costs. A lot of this is theater, but the real hard work will take years. Businesses love predictability, and a trade war means uncertainty. But there are ways to hedge that with currency markets and other ways.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.