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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'Chain Gang Charlie" sure is an affable fellow. The tough-guy nickname that Charlie Crist picked up in his last job as attorney-general of Florida doesn't jibe with the super-calm demeanor, the impeccable tan and the pressed white shirt, or the silver coiffure of the Sunshine State's new governor. Speaking with The Jerusalem Post during a visit to the country this week, Crist came across more like a game show host than a grizzly prison warden.
"It's spectacular here," gushed the easy-going governor. "I love Israel!"
At first glance, Israel is a strange choice for Crist's first overseas trip as governor. But Crist doesn't see it that way. He is quick to find connections between his state and ours. The first one, as luck would have it, is the Post's own Saul Singer.
"In 1997, on my first trip to Israel, Saul was my tour guide," Crist announced gleefully at the outset of our meeting at the David Citadel Hotel. The connection between the two men is Connie Mack III: They both worked for Mack in 1988, while he was in the US House of Representatives. Singer made aliya in 1994, joining the Post, where he serves as editorial page editor.
Crist, meanwhile, has worked his way up the political ladder, serving in various positions under Jeb Bush - brother of George W. and Crist's immediate predecessor as governor of Florida.
(Crist was also pleased to learn that a distant relative of mine worked on his staff in the Attorney-General's Office, and that my wife is a fellow alumnus of Florida State University. "All right!" he exclaimed. "Go Seminoles!")
Coincidental personal ties aside, Crist's state and the Jewish state do indeed have plenty in common. Both have seen tremendous growth in the past 60 years, and in both cases that growth was fueled by immigration. Both rely heavily on tourism. Both are major players in the global orange market.
And, of course, both have beautiful beaches.
"I was commenting to a friend in Tel Aviv," Crist said, "that looking out at the Mediterranean makes me think of Fort Myers. It looks like you're on the Gulf Coast of Florida."
Crist felt so at home here that when he bumped into Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman - a frequent visitor with family ties here - in the hotel's executive lounge, it was Crist who invited Lieberman onto a balcony to enjoy the breeze.
"The bond between Florida and Israel is obvious," said Crist, leader of the state that is home to the third-largest Jewish population in the US. "It is cultural, it is educational, it is religious. On so many levels, we have so much in common."
THE TIES that Crist mainly came to discuss, however, were business ties. Trade between Israel and Florida stood at $229 million last year. But Crist would like to see that figure grow - especially Florida's exports to the country, which have declined for three years in a row. Crist led a delegation of state officials and business leaders, which was funded by Enterprise Florida, a public-private partnership that works toward business development in Florida. While here they finalized a deal with the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry that will see Israel and Florida jointly invest $20 million over the next five years in stimulating bilateral business partnerships. (The deal is to be signed in Florida in October.)
Israel Aircraft Industries board chairman Yair Shamir told Crist in a meeting that the governor characterized as "extraordinary," that the aeronautics giant was interested in investing significant sums in partnerships with Florida, either with defense contractors or with civilian enterprises.
Considering that the space industry accounts for $4.5 billion of Florida's economy - NASA employs 15,000 people at the Kennedy Space Center alone - "it's a natural" for IAI to look to set up shop there, Crist said.
Florida is also trying to develop its life sciences industry, which made Israel's burgeoning biotech field a magnet for Crist and the rest of his delegation.
To make sure there will be dollars in Israeli hands to spend, Crist approved a resolution in the Florida legislature to allow local governments to invest in Israel Bonds. The state government, he said, already does so.
WHILE TRADE was the main thing on his mind, Crist also brought with him some free support. It may have been just another coincidence, but the governor - who, despite his repeated denials, has been mentioned as a possible candidate to seek the vice presidency on the 2008 Republican ticket - announced during his visit that he would sign a resolution ordering Florida to divest from Iran and Sudan. It is an initiative that he called extremely important, and one that he is encouraging his fellow governors to adopt.
"When I spoke with [opposition leader Binyamin] Netanyahu, we discussed the importance of doing what's right and trying to stand up for human rights and justice," Crist said. "The idea of justice and fundamental fairness is so important as it relates to this divestiture issue, regarding both Iran and Sudan. So, any way that we can push the agenda of doing the right thing, and making sure that social justice continues to move forward, and human rights are defended and civil rights become more prominent on the agenda across the board... is just the right thing to do."
Crist also said he received an outpouring of support and appreciation for the resolution from Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Olmert, he said, related to him a personal story about Sudanese refugees. "There was a family, a husband and wife and their four-year-old daughter, that was trying to escape Darfur," Crist relayed. "They were making their way through Egypt, trying to get to Israel and freedom. On the border between Egypt and Israel, they were accosted by a man who said to the husband, 'Either give me your wife, or I will take your daughter.' The father refused, so the man forced the daughter away and took over. Obviously the parents were incredibly distraught...
"[Olmert] said he heard the story not much after, and contact the leader of Egypt [Hosni Mubarak] to alert him to what had occurred and solicited his help to try to find the daughter. In the meantime, apparently, Israel was assisting in finding employment for the Sudanese husband and wife...
"[Olmert] said that when he had gotten home he told his wife the story of what had happened, and he said, 'You never know what opportunity you might have, with where you are in life and what role you're in, to help somebody else.' So the next morning, she said she was going to write a letter to the wife of [Mubarak] to [ask her to] impress upon him the importance, from her perspective as a woman, of getting this daughter freed, and asking her to implore her husband to redouble the effort to do so. So she sent the letter and, within 24 hours, the four-year-old daughter was found and, with much relief, was returned to the parents."
Crist added that he realized "there's a connection between the people who have been through the horrific oppression and cruelty of the Holocaust, and how the prime minister is able to relate to what is happening in Darfur today."
Regarding Iran, he said, "I think there's a corollary that can be drawn with this divestiture issue to denouncing terrorism."
And no, Crist said, he doesn't worry about drawing the attention of terrorists by declaring Florida's strong ties to Israel. "If you believe in freedom, and you believe in democracy, and you believe that those are important, then you need to have the courage of that conviction to never waver from it," he said.
WHILE ZIPPING back and forth between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Crist was impressed by how much both cities had developed since his previous visit a decade ago, despite the crises of a brutal terrorism campaign and repeated rocket attacks.
"As I look around and see how thriving Israel is today, in the midst of difficulties that exist in Gaza, it's amazing to me - and inspiring to me, frankly - that Israel can continue to be extraordinarily successful in the face of challenges," Crist said. "It's a great analogy that, no matter what difficulties you may have as a nation or as a state, you need to always continue to move forward, and be optimistic, and realize that there's a better tomorrow coming. And you need to promote that. Israel obviously does a great job of that; I can see it."
With that, Crist prepared to wrap up his visit, which he would follow with a brief stop in Jordan to chat with King Abdullah II. His smile left no doubt that he considered his time here a success.
"It's been a tremendous visit," Crist said, "which has been mutually beneficial to Israel and Florida."