Deal leads trip to Israel packed with political resonance

Israel may seem a strange pick for the state trade mission that begins Friday. But the journey to the Holy Land packs a punch that goes far beyond business.

Sure, there will be stops designed to strengthen economic ties with Israel, a relatively minor trading partner. But the five-day trip — Gov. Nathan Deal’s only major overseas journey scheduled this election year — is steeped in cultural, religious and political undertones that could resonate through November.

The governor will visit some of Jerusalem’s holiest sites, his aides will trade tips with Israeli counterparts and Deal will be pressured to improve Holocaust education in Georgia. And then there’s the not-so-subtle political subtext.

The governor’s November opponent, state Sen. Jason Carter, has tried to reassure Jewish voters that he is very different from his grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter, when it comes to Middle East policy. The ex-president has had an often tense relationship with Jewish leaders since leaving office.

A round of meetings with powerful Israeli officials, including Jerusalem’s mayor, and visits with prominent members of Atlanta’s Jewish community, who are on a separate trip that overlaps with the state mission, could only reinforce the message that Deal is making a play for Jewish support.

Quants and quartz

Israel’s footprint in Georgia pales in comparison with Japan and Canada, the targets of previous trade missions. But it’s increasingly becoming a lucrative source of direct foreign investment, and about 40 Israeli companies have operations in Georgia, including a growing presence in metro Atlanta.

Among the best known are Israeli technology firms Amdocs and Verint, which both have substantial offices in Alpharetta. Caesarstone, a global quartz surfaces maker based off Israel's northern coast, built a $100 million manufacturing plant in southeast Georgia that employs about 180 people.

The governor's journey includes visits to all three firms as well as a trip to Israel's version of Silicon Valley, known as Silicon Wadi. He will also meet with executives from Israeli Aerospace Industries, an aircraft manufacturer that partners with Savannah-based Gulfstream to design and build business jets.

The goal of the trip’s economic mission is to persuade firms looking to expand into the U.S. to consider Georgia, which is often an afterthought for Israeli firms. State recruiters will hold a seminar for Israeli executives during the trip to drive that message home.

“The South is somewhat down the list in the minds of the Israeli business community,” said Shai Robkin, the head of the America Israel Business Connector, an Atlanta-based trade organization. “But we want them to recognize that Georgia can be a tremendous gateway to all of America.”

‘An ultimate alliance’

Deal's visit takes him to Yad Vashem, the nation's Holocaust memorial museum, to the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, and to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified. Opher Aviran, Israel's consul general in Atlanta, said he hopes Deal and others "get to know the Israeli people" along the way.

“As the U.S. and Israel share an ultimate alliance, I hope the members of the delegation will listen to Israelis’ political views concerning pluralism and democracy, and engage about our shared values,” Aviran said.

That includes in-depth sessions with Israeli experts. Brenda Fitzgerald, who heads Georgia’s Department of Public Health, will stay in Israel an extra day to meet with Israeli health care officials who focus on emergency response. Sally Levine, the executive director of Georgia’s Commission on the Holocaust, will take part in specialized training sessions.

Deal said in an interview that the trip was not designed with the election in mind.

“I’ve always been a staunch supporter of Israel, and I think since I’ve been governor we have responded to their requests and increased our investment portfolio in Israel,” he said. “I think we’ve just created a good deal of friends in the Jewish community, and I’m very thankful for that.”

A political message

The election-year timing sends an unmistakable political message, too. Jewish voters make up a small fraction of Georgia's electorate, and polls show they tend to support Democrats at the ballot box, although the margin isn't as steep as it once was. Importantly, the community makes up an important segment of political donors, a factor Deal's aides privately note.

Carter's grandfather upset many Jews in Georgia and beyond after he compared Israeli treatment of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza to the apartheid that once existed in South Africa. And Israeli politicians were furious when the former president met with leaders from Hamas, considered a terror group by Israel and its Western allies.

Carter has gone to great lengths to distance himself from his grandfather’s policies, and the former president issued a public apology to the Jewish community shortly before his grandson’s run for a state Senate seat.

Yet hard feelings still linger, said Kenneth Stein, an Emory University professor of Middle East history and political science. Stein, who resigned as an adviser to the former president after questioning the accuracy of the elder Carter's book, said he expects the governor to emphasize the trip to religious audiences through November.

“Would Deal go to Israel if Jimmy Carter never had a run-in with American Jews? Maybe. He’s also probably going partly because he wants to fundraise the day after he gets back,” said Stein, throwing out the name of a made-up group. “And the Cowboy Evangelical Ministry in Odessa, Texas, would love to hear about his visit.”