Ehrlich, in Israel, fosters business and political ties


TEL AVIV, Israel - It's part of almost every Maryland governor's travels - a trip to Israel to foster business deals and solidify political support at home. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is following the pattern by visiting here this week with an entourage of 27 state officials and corporate executives.

His visit differs significantly from the trip Gov. Parris N. Glendening made here six years ago to announce new investments by Maryland firms in Israel. Instead of guiding Maryland investors to Israel, Ehrlich is advertising Maryland as a place for Israelis to invest.

Given Israel's political and economic problems, many more of its citizens are looking for new havens for their products and capital.

"We're here to make the hard sell," the governor told a group of Israeli business executives who have decided to invest in Maryland or have shown an interest. "We're very enthusiastic, and we don't take no for an answer."

Israel ranks 27th on the list of countries as a source of foreign investment in Maryland - 18 Israeli companies have offices in the state - and Maryland businesses invest about $70 million a year in Israel, according to the Maryland-Israel Development Center.

When the chief executive of an Israeli electronics company introduced himself at a luncheon and said, "Maryland is one of the options we are considering," Ehrlich quickly interrupted him, saying: "It is the only option."

Like governors in the past, he sought to impress his delegation and hosts with his interest in Israel's security and the concerns of Jewish voters back home. Ehrlich asserted that he had won a majority of Jewish support in Central Maryland and said he was the first Republican to do so.

"Because I am pro-Israel does not mean I am anti-Arab," said Ehrlich, who last visited Israel in 1996 as a member of a congressional delegation. "You see that our national administration stands by Israel and at the same time backs a Palestinian state."

He defended his having not scheduled meetings with Palestinians, saying: "This is not a foreign policy trip." But his staff arranged an interview session for Palestinian reporters.

Maryland is spending $52,000 for the visit by Ehrlich and the 11 state employees with him. The others are paying their own way.

Ehrlich met Wednesday with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. He is to meet today with Seth Mandel, father of 14-year-old Kobi Mandel, who moved to Israel from Maryland and was killed by Palestinians in the West Bank two years ago.

Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, described Sharon's hourlong meeting with Ehrlich as "very good and warm. This kind of support for Israel at a time when we are under a great deal of international pressure is very important."

Gissin said Sharon asked Ehrlich to help persuade the Bush administration to rescind a State Department travel advisory about the dangers of visiting Israel.

"The governor said he would push for it, and he said that the fact he is here with his people shows that he is for rescinding the travel advisory," Gissin said. Over the past three years, the drop in tourism has cost Israel about 70,000 jobs and $2.5 billion.

Ehrlich's spokesman, Greg Massoni, said yesterday that the governor did not promise to lobby against the travel advisory.

"The symbolism is there, in that we traveled against warnings not to travel," Massoni said. "We're touring and we're doing business deals. No place is safe, and people should not let the bad guys win by determining where people can and cannot go."

Sharon's pressure on a governor to try to influence White House policy reflects Israel's sensitivity to criticism of its handling of the Palestinian uprising. Israeli leaders embrace any foreign officials who offer support.

Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said Israel's changing security situation makes every gubernatorial visit different. The group did not organize Ehrlich's visit, but Abramson is a part of his official delegation.

"In the end, the constant is a continuing strong relationship between the state of Maryland and Israel," said Abramson, who accompanied Glendening here in 1997. "It is political, as well as moral and economic."

Uri Dromi of the Israel Democracy Institute said trips by American governors are important for the governors and for Israel.

"Anyone who wants to be elected or re-elected in a place where there is a strong Jewish constituency has to come to Israel," Dromi said. "These are all trips for economic development, combined, of course, with political considerations."

Dromi said many American politicians want a firsthand look at how Israel is dealing with violence. He said the Sept. 11 attacks "gave Americans a better understanding of Israel, that we have gone through this before. I think some of the things that Israel is getting away with now wouldn't have been possible before Sept. 11. Outsiders are looking at Israel as a lab for fighting terrorism."

Meanwhile, Ehrlich announced plans by two Israeli companies to create jobs in Maryland. Oblicore, a business software development company, will expand its U.S. operations by opening a headquarters in Columbia, creating a dozen jobs within a few months, officials said, and the prospect of several dozen more.

Medispec, a company that has developed a new technique for using shock waves to break up kidney stones, is opening offices in Germantown.

"They are bringing new technology and jobs into Maryland," said Barry E. Bogage, executive director of the Maryland-Israel Development Center, which helped organize the governor's trip. "Companies in Maryland have a great respect for Israeli technology and they want to use it. But given the situation in Israel, I don't see too many [Maryland firms] willing to jump up and flock over."

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