TALLAHASSEE, Fla. —
In a trip that may be as much about politics as it is about jobs, Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday headed to Israel for a weeklong trade mission.
Like former governors Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush, Scott has chosen to visit the Middle East country during his first year in office.
Israel isn’t a significant trading partner with Florida, currently ranking 56th, but that nation has extensive cultural and social ties to Florida due to the state’s estimated 750,000 Jewish residents. Florida has the third largest Jewish community in the United States.
Scott’s trip will take him to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well as landmarks such as the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Scott plans to lay a wreath at the burial site of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated in 1995.
During his trip to Israel Crist went to the famed wall and placed in it a handwritten prayer asking God to protect Florida from hurricanes.
A spokesman for Scott said the governor planned to place a prayer in the wall, but said it was unlikely that the text would be released.
Scott is also scheduled to meet with several top Israeli officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The governor will also participate in a forum on the future of the U.S. economy and the 2012 elections and attend a reception held by the U.S. ambassador to Israel.
The governor said this week that he has made an effort to meet with top elected officials on his three previous trade missions to Panama, Canada and Brazil.
“It helps build our relationship,” Scott said. “If there’s an issue between Israel and Florida it’s easier if you know somebody.”
The governor’s visit comes at a time when there is a clash going on at the national level over winning the Jewish vote during the 2012 presidential election.
GOP presidential candidates have castigated the Obama administration for its policies toward Israel. But U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., who chairs the Democratic National Committee, predicted in September that President Barack Obama would win the Jewish vote and her home state.
Scott insisted that the main focus of his trip is strengthening economic ties, not wooing Jewish voters.
“It’s an effort to get more jobs,” Scott said.
State Sen. Maria Sachs, who is going on the trade mission, said every “chief executive in the nation should visit the state of Israel.” Sachs, a Delray Beach Democrat, has been numerous times and said many of her constituents care deeply about the security of Israel, but she also said the state should be trying to improve its business ties.
Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development agency, reports that exports to Israel have risen in the last year, fueled largely by a climb in trucks and cars coming from Florida. During his visit Scott is expected to talk to Israeli officials about a proposed agreement that could lead to the state and Israel working together to assist companies with research and development efforts.
Kevin Levy, a South Florida attorney and vice chairman of the Florida-Israel Business Forum, said the low level of existing trade between Israel and Florida is exactly why Florida should be doing more to strengthen ties. He said Florida and Israel have many natural connections and Florida could serve as a conduit to help Israeli trade with emerging Latin American economies.
“There’s lots of low-hanging fruit, there’s lots of opportunities,” said Levy, who is also going on the trade mission.
Levy said his private not-for profit organization plans to lead its own trade delegation to Israel next spring.
Scott is leading a contingent of nearly 50 people from Florida that includes Senate President Mike Haridopolos and his wife as well as University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft. Scott’s expenses are being picked up by private donations to Enterprise Florida. The state is picking up Haridopolos’ travel costs, but not those of his wife, and is paying the expenses of a handful of other state employees who are going on the trip.