Trip to Israel lets Kemp burnish foreign policy chops and boost image in U.S.

Gov. Brian Kemp, left, discusses foreign policy with Israel President Isaac Herzog, who showed an interest in Georgia's economy. Contributed.

Gov. Brian Kemp, left, discusses foreign policy with Israel President Isaac Herzog, who showed an interest in Georgia's economy. Contributed.

JERUSALEM — At the start of a 20-minute sit-down at the President’s House in an upscale Jerusalem neighborhood, Isaac Herzog probed Gov. Brian Kemp with a few questions about his state’s economy. It was almost as if the Israeli leader teed him up at a campaign rally.

“In terms of your economic standing in the United States or in the world, are you a big economy?” Herzog asked.

“You’ll be glad to know we’re No. 1,” Kemp responded, according to attendees at the private meeting with the Israeli president, pausing a moment before he dropped in a favorite political slogan to his host. “Best state in the country to do business.”

As Kemp traveled this week in Israel, he looked to make an impression. There was a lengthy meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who carved an hour from his schedule to receive the governor amid a growing Israeli domestic crisis.

Kemp grilled senior business and political officials at stops in the desert hub of Beersheba and the metropolis of Tel Aviv. And he toured Israel’s prized weapons system days after militants in Gaza fired a barrage of rockets toward Israel.

The Republican governor had promised since 2018 that he would lead a state delegation to Israel, but the timing of this week’s trip came at a fortuitous moment for a politician who appears more than happy to be seen as a national figure.

Fresh off victories over a Donald Trump-backed Republican opponent and Democrat Stacey Abrams, Kemp is now being discussed as a potential candidate for federal office.

And as he works to stay in the 2024 conversation, analysts say the high-profile sojourn to Israel — complete with images of him embracing Netanyahu and discussing military policy with high-level officers — could help strengthen his meager foreign policy credentials.

“When you see a governor of a state making a high-profile visit to a foreign country, it’s pretty clear this is an attempt to demonstrate he’s someone capable of dealing with complicated issues,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist.

A well-worn path

Kemp’s trip to Israel was far different than the last visit a Georgia governor made to the Holy Land. That 2014 mission by Nathan Deal came in the heat of a reelection battle against then-state Sen. Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.

Melding business and politics, Deal’s trip aimed to not-so-subtly remind Georgians of Jimmy Carter’s strained ties with Israel — and curry favor with Jewish voters and donors who were queasy about his grandson’s candidacy.

Kemp’s delegation, meanwhile, came as he is emerging as a national GOP figure who is talked of as a potential 2024 running mate and, more likely, a 2026 challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, the first Jewish Georgian to serve in that office.

Israeli officials seemed aware of Kemp’s national prospects. In a closed-door meeting, Netanyahu stressed to Kemp the urgency of isolating Iran and forging closer ties with Saudi Arabia, which has never formally recognized Israel, and he discussed broader foreign policy issues.

The trip also had a different tenor than Deal’s. Kemp brought a smaller delegation and included three key legislative leaders: House Speaker Jon Burns, Senate GOP leader John Kennedy and state Rep. Shaw Blackmon, chair of the House’s tax policy committee.

The governor and his wife, Marty, also paid to bring their three daughters, who surrounded Kemp’s middle-row coach seat on the 11-hour flight to Tel Aviv and joined the delegation for business meetings, cultural visits and bumpy bus rides through the Negev Desert and coastal villages.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (fourth from right) leads a state delegation to Israel that includes his wife, Marty; state Rep. Shaw Blackmon, left, and his wife, Whitney; House Speaker Jon Burns and his wife, Dayle; and Senate GOP leader John Kennedy, second from right, and his wife, Susan. (Photo: Greg Bluestein /

Credit: Greg Bluestein/AJC

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Credit: Greg Bluestein/AJC

The family grew emotional during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial — an experience Kemp said was among the most moving of his life. And Kemp said his travels across the nation, as well as discussions with Netanyahu and other leaders, solidified his pro-Israel view.

“The people here live in fear every day of a nuclear Iran and other evils of the world that want to destroy the Jewish people, the Jewish state and the country of Israel,” Kemp said in an interview.

The overseas venture also opens him to fresh criticism. Some Republicans privately grumbled at the timing of the trip shortly after Kemp blocked more than $200 million in legislative priorities. Democrats took shots about his domestic policies.

Bobby Kahn, the former chair of the state Democratic Party, applauded Kemp for “supporting friends overseas” but said he hoped he returned home with a new appreciation of restrictive gun policies, such as those in Israel.

“Instead of passing laws to make it easy for people to buy assault rifles,” he said of Kemp’s permissive firearms stance, “Gov. Kemp might do well to reflect upon steps he could take in Georgia to stop the barrage of shootings in our schools and neighborhoods.”


Throughout the weeklong journey, Kemp got an up-close view of Israel’s inner workings. He met with software executives in glittering Tel Aviv skyscrapers and trekked to a shuttered factory in the ancient city of Caesarea to consult with a countertop maker considering a Georgia expansion.

In an isolated field outside Ashdod, military commanders briefed Kemp on the Iron Dome antimissile system, which just a week earlier was activated to down a barrage of rockets fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants from nearby Gaza.

An Israeli soldier briefs Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and members of the Georgia delegation on Israel's antimissile Iron Dome system. (Courtesy Gov. Brian Kemp's office/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

And at a reception hosted by the U.S. Embassy in suburban Herzlya, more than 100 Israeli executives, entrepreneurs and officials gathered to network with the Georgians and explore new economic development opportunities.

“It made me appreciate how vital strong relations between U.S. and Israel are — not only to Israel but the rest of the world when you think about it from a peace through strength perspective,” Kemp said.

But the governor’s most notable attempt to sharpen his international experience came on the second day of his trip, when Kemp huddled with Herzog, Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in a trio of closed-door meetings at heavily guarded Israeli compounds.

During a meeting at Herzog’s official residence, the Israeli president peppered Kemp with questions about the state’s economy. And Cohen promised to send a trade delegation to Atlanta to strengthen ties between the two governments.

It was Netanyahu, the longest-tenured prime minister in Israel’s history, who may have left the biggest impression.

Even as he warned Kemp about the threat of a nuclear-capable Iran, Netanyahu also pressed him on the fate of a measure to combat antisemitism that passed the Georgia House and hasn’t yet reached a final vote in the Senate.

Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Israeli leader's Jerusalem office. Their discussion included a question by Netanyahu about the fate of an antisemitism bill that stalled during Georgia's legislative session earlier this year. It will come up for debate again in 2024. Israel GPO/Kobi Gideon

Credit: Israel GPO/Kobi Gideon

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Credit: Israel GPO/Kobi Gideon

Kemp, who hasn’t yet publicly endorsed the measure, nodded to his executive counsel David Dove, who told the prime minister the measure would be up for debate again in 2024.

And in a sign that Kemp’s reputation preceded him, a Netanyahu aide asked the governor if he was wearing his leather cowboy boots, which Kemp donned during his January trek to an elite global conference of billionaires in Davos, Switzerland. Kemp rolled up his pant legs to show off his studs.

“He doesn’t get many chances to weigh in on global issues, but you’d be surprised how closely he follows global trends from an economic development perspective,” said his longtime political adviser Cody Hall. “This only helps him learn more about our partners and their challenges.”