Kemp to lead a Georgia trade mission to Israel

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks with members of the media after Georgia was named the top state for doing business in 2022 by Area Development at the Kia Plant, Wednesday, September 28, 2022, in West Point, Ga. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks with members of the media after Georgia was named the top state for doing business in 2022 by Area Development at the Kia Plant, Wednesday, September 28, 2022, in West Point, Ga. (Jason Getz /

Gov. Brian Kemp will embark on an economic development mission to Israel to meet with foreign dignitaries amid increased tensions in the Middle East, an overseas trip that comes as the Georgia Republican works to sharpen his national profile.

The trip, which begins this weekend, includes visits with Israeli leaders, diplomats and executives to pitch Georgia as a springboard to vault their products to the U.S. market and to strengthen cultural and diplomatic ties between the Peach State and the Holy Land.

The governor will visit some of Jerusalem’s holiest sites, cutting-edge research centers in the desert tech hub of Be’er Sheva, and Tel Aviv’s glittering skyscrapers. He also plans to huddle with Israeli officials who this week struck a cease-fire to halt another bloody conflict with militants in the Gaza Strip.

It’s one of a handful of international trips by Kemp since he was elected in 2018. Shortly after that victory, he traveled to South Korea on his first economic development mission. He also journeyed to the Swiss ski resort of Davos in January for an annual conference of global leaders.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp attended a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

Credit: Markus Schreiber/AP

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Credit: Markus Schreiber/AP

The governor had planned to visit Israel in his first term, but the trip was delayed until this year by the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic and a taxing reelection bid that ended in Kemp’s victory over a Donald Trump-backed challenger in the primary and Stacey Abrams in November.

Now seen by supporters as a national candidate – some Republicans float Kemp as a future White House contender – the governor’s trip coincides with his efforts to urge Republicans to focus on the future and not Trump’s obsession with the 2020 race.

The trip comes at a fraught time in Israel, whose leaders agreed to suspend fighting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to end five days of rocket fire, airstrikes and violence between the Israeli military and the Gaza-based militant group that left 35 people dead.

Israel is facing domestic turbulence, too, with massive protests for weeks over a proposed judicial overhaul backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a large-scale strike involving thousands of municipal workers against a controversial new tax policy.

‘Critical market’

Though Israel is a relatively small trade partner with Georgia – it’s the state’s 34th largest export market – it has long been a favorite destination for Georgia governors.

Sonny Perdue brought a delegation there in 2005, and Nathan Deal traveled with dozens of state officials and executives in 2014 as he ran for a second term.

With roughly 9 million people, Israel would likely be little more than a blip on the political map if not for its cultural and religious importance and its high-tech economy, home to a thriving ecosystem of entrepreneurs bubbling with ambitions that stretch far beyond the region.

“Israel is economically, culturally, religiously and politically significant to Georgia,” said Pat Wilson, head of the state’s economic development department. “This mission will underscore and further strengthen what is already an important relationship.”

Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens listen to a tour guide outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the holiest Christian sites in Jerusalem. While on his trade mission to Israel, the governor has prayed outside Christian holy sites and also visited the Western Wall, the most sacred place in Judaism. GREG BLUESTEIN / GBLUESTEIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Greg Bluestein

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Credit: Greg Bluestein

Kemp will be joined by a small delegation that includes his wife Marty and his three daughters. Officials say the Georgia economic development department is handling the tab for the governor and his wife, while the family is picking up the bill for their children.

Georgia has had a trade office in Israel since 1994, but its companies haven’t had substantial footprints in the state until the last decade. That’s when the office was instructed to focus more on attracting direct foreign investment.

There are now at least 20 Israeli firms that have operations in Georgia, including several technology outfits that offer the sort of high-wage jobs that recruiters crave. Kemp will also visit Georgia-based firms with growing investments in Israel and meet with cybersecurity officials.

Overseas trips don’t often result in an immediate blockbuster announcement, but they can set the stage for long-range plans. Kemp aides often point to his 2019 trip to South Korea that helped cement several massive projects from Hyundai Motor Group in the last two years.

Georgia officials have taken steps beyond this mission to build a closer relationship with Israel.

A Kemp-backed law signed in 2022 requires businesses with significant state contracts to sign an oath pledging not to boycott Israel. Legislative leaders hope to revive a bill to combat antisemitism next year after it faltered in the General Assembly.

And Delta Air Lines recently relaunched direct service from Atlanta to Tel Aviv, a move that could also help boost the small but growing Israeli tourism footprint in Georgia and the rest of the Southeast.

Abe Schear, an Arnall Golden Gregory partner specializing in international investment, said the trip sends an important message to Georgia’s pro-Israel community and could lead to closer ties between the two governments.

“The Israelis really see the Southeast as a critical market,” said Schear, who has made dozens of trips to Israel to recruit businesses, “and they see the technology environment in Georgia to be a natural fit with Israel’s ecosystem.”