NJ Gov. Jon Corzine, right, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem; the governor focused mostly on ties between the Jewish state and the Garden State during his visit.
Photo by Amos Ben Gershom / GPO ISRAEL OUT
July 24, 2008
New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine served as the opening act for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on his visit to Israel this week, reassuring Israelis that Obama would maintain the strong connection between Israel and the United States.
Corzine began a weeklong visit to Israel on Sunday and met with many of the same Israeli leaders Obama was scheduled to meet in his 24-hour visit to Israel on Wednesday, including President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
While those discussions focused mostly on issues like alternative energy and trade ties between the Jewish state and the Garden State, the politics of America and the Middle East were also addressed at length. Corzine, who supported Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary but subsequently endorsed Obama, told Israel's leaders that Obama would get elected president.
"I don't see a way that Obama loses this race," Corzine told an Israeli leader in a closed conversation, according to a source present in the room.
Corzine told NJJN in an interview that he was surprised by how positive Israeli leaders were when discussing Obama. He said the only skepticism that he heard regarding the Democratic candidate came from people who were not as familiar with Obama and his policies.
Israel's leaders, Corzine said, “have met him, and they are comfortable that he would be consistent in maintaining the commitment to Israel that's been the American policy for six decades.
“It's hard for me to measure the man on the street in Israel. In conversations with the private sector, people raised common concerns. But I think it's just an issue of them not getting a chance to become acquainted with [Obama]."
Corzine's comments reflect some recent polling in Israel that shows Israelis preferring presumptive Republican candidate John McCain over Obama, especially among those on the right and the center-right.
Asked whether he felt his visit to Israel was overshadowed by that of Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Corzine said the trip could not have been better.
"This is the best foreign trip I could possibly have," Corzine said. "The schedule couldn't be more productive on the economic development standpoint and the dialogue that will help Israel and New Jersey and advance our glowing economic relationship."
Olmert, Peres, and Netanyahu each devoted at least an hour on their busy schedules to their meetings with Corzine. An Olmert aide said the prime minister described Corzine as a good friend of his since before he entered politics. In another connection between the two men, Olmert's chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, worked at Goldman Sachs under Corzine.
Corzine also met with Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On and his professional staff, longtime friend and Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer, Diaspora Affairs and Social Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog, and many top Israeli business leaders, including Eli Hurvitz, chair of the board of Teva Pharmaceuticals.
Jerusalem-based Teva, which is Israel's largest company, made news last Friday when it announced its $7.5 billion acquisition of rival generic drug-maker Barr Pharmaceuticals, which is based in Montvale, NJ. Corzine said the move would deepen trade ties between Israel and New Jersey, which grew by a remarkable 195 percent in 2007.
"New Jersey is the medicine chest of the world," Corzine said. "Teva is the leading generic drug producer in the world. It has a presence in New Jersey, and it will have even more of a presence now that it has bought Barr."
Corzine toured the Technion in Haifa on Tuesday and saw Israeli advances in embryonic stem-cell research, which Corzine has championed despite the limitations imposed on such research by the Bush administration.
On Thursday, he was set to visit an Israeli project that is developing cars that run completely on electricity.
"Israel is at the cutting edge in alternative energy, water preservation, and alternative transportation issues," Corzine said. "We in the U.S. need to catch up and be as aggressive as Israel. The use of electric cars is a technology that can be explored, especially in a densely populated state like New Jersey. We need to make sure the technology will be in place."
The alternative energy issue was discussed at length in Corzine's meetings with Israeli leaders. He complained to Netanyahu about America's dependency on oil and described how traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike and the Hudson River crossings has fallen by huge numbers due to the rise of gas prices.
Corzine said New Jersey was at the cutting edge of reducing reliance on oil with some of the strictest targets, including a 20 percent reduction in consumption and a 20 percent use of alternative energy by 2020.
Former Israeli consul-general in New York Arye Mekel, who is now the Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for cultural and scientific affairs, hosted a dinner in Corzine's honor at the King David Hotel on Sunday night.
At the dinner, Mekel suggested that a new cultural subcommittee be formed in the Israel-New Jersey Commission that would handle cultural exchanges. Mekel said he wanted to send Israeli artists, musicians, writers, and movie festivals to New Jersey. The governor was receptive to the idea.
Corzine was given a late-night VIP tour of the Israel Museum by its director, James Snyder, and he also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.
While this was Corzine's first visit to Israel as governor, he visited the country many times as a senator and as a private businessman. Mekel recalled how he had tried to organize Corzine's trip twice before but it had to be canceled, first due to a budget crisis in the statehouse and then in the wake of last year's car accident that almost killed the governor.
Corzine was accompanied on the trip by Mekel's successor as consul-general, Asaf Shariv, who is a former spokesman for Olmert and his predecessor Ariel Sharon.
Shariv said that unlike some visits to Israel by other American governors, Israeli political and economic leaders were genuinely interested in what Corzine had to say because of his experience as a senator and CEO of Goldman Sachs.
"The governor is one of the most impressive people I have ever met in my life, and I know Olmert agrees with me," Shariv said.