The governor and the Georgia delegation visited Israel Aerospace Industries, which builds the Gulfstream 280 in partnership with the aerospace giant which serves as Georgia's largest manufacturing employer. Photo: @GovKemp on Twitter

When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp made his first overseas trip to South Korea in 2021, the rationale was clear: influential Korean companies like Kia and SK had already spent billions in the state, and more investment and jobs were there for the taking. 

Two years, billions of dollars and thousands of jobs later, the logic of that trip would be hard to assail. 

Choosing Israel for his first official post-pandemic mission, meanwhile, led some to suggest the governor was more interested in bolstering his U.S. political aspirations than acting in the state’s economic interests. 

Georgia Department of Economic Development Commissioner Pat Wilson said that may stem from a surface-level of understanding of Israel, where the department has operated an office since 1994 precisely because of the outsize influence created by its unique blend of religious significance, entrepreneurial vigor and affinity with the U.S. 

“Whether you’re talking about economic impact, political impact or cultural impact, this small country with a population smaller than Georgia really does have a greater sized impact around the world than maybe any other country per capita,” Mr. Wilson said. 

Having the governor join such a trip elevates the mission in the eyes of the host nation, and the governor’s meetings with the highest level political leaders including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog, gave the Georgia delegation essential insight on a country that is disproportionately shaped by global events and policy stances, he said. 

“To understand Israel is to understand the politics on the ground and the historical context,” Mr. Wilson said. 

He added that former Gov. Nathan Deal also met with Mr. Netanyahu in his second term as governor, and that Mr. Kemp was fulfilling a campaign promise that had been delayed by the pandemic until his second term. 

Anat Sultan-Dadon, consul general of Israel to the Southeastern U.S., who traveled with Georgia leader and helped organize the trip, said closer political ties have bolstered the economic relationship. 

“Governor Kemp and Georgia’s lawmakers on the delegation are all strong supporters of Israel and our bilateral relations,” Ms. Sultan-Dadon said. “That friendship and support creates a welcoming environment and a level of trust that is conducive to our business relations.” 

She added that a Georgia-Israel legislative caucus established last year is “a clear reflection of the strength of our relations and the bipartisan support that we enjoy in Georgia, it also serves as a platform for engagement, speakers and activities related to Israel and our relations.”

It may have been a tense time in Israeli’s domestic politics, but the trip came at what the consul general described as an opportune moment for economic ties with Georgia.

Delta Air Lines last month launched daily nonstop flights from Atlanta to Tel Aviv, the country’s commercial center, reopening a vital conduit for business and tourism after 12 years. 

That was followed by agreements between Israel’s Cinema South Festival and the Rome, Ga.’s International film festival — the first bilateral partnership of its kind — and an intensified partnership between Ben Gurion University and Augusta University. The schools already work together on cybersecurity initiatives — Augusta’s Fort Gordon is home to U.S. Cyber Command — but they also committed to deepen academic and research partnerships, the consul general said. 

“These examples highlight the extent, breadth and depth of our relations, and we are very excited about all that is yet to grow,” Ms. Sultan-Dadon said. 

The way Israel’s economy capitalizes on military service is something that Georgia, with its 13 military installations and growing veteran workforce, is also watching, Mr. Wilson said. 

As outlined in the book “Startup Nation,” Israel’s mandatory military service means that men and women exit their (at least) two-year stints with a community, a skillset and a sense of responsibility to protect and prosper a country with neighbors that don’t think it should exist. 

“It comes up in almost every meeting” as an explanation for why companies developed they way they did, or how an innovative technology came about, Mr. Wilson said. 

Israel’s small internal market of 9 million people means that when startups want to scale up, they tend to look outside their own borders — and the U.S. is first choice for cultural, geopolitical and fundraising factors. 

During the trip, Mr. Kemp aimed to tap into that undercurrent, Mr. Wilson said, meeting with some 20 Israeli companies at various stages of expansion during a SelectUSA reception at the residence of the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Tel Aviv. 

“Every one of those companies is looking to the United States for growth,” said Mr. Wilson, who foresees dividends down the road as relationships sown on the trip start to sprout into jobs for Georgians.

Israel is well-known for a system of incubators that grow companies from ideation to investment. Many are later acquired for large sums by companies like those that make up Atlanta’s strong base of Fortune 500 anchor firms. That ecosystem, and the city’s growing pool of tech talent and strong research universities, is leading more Israeli firms to look at the city as a conduit into the U.S., Mr. Wilson said. 

Israel is also developing expertise in one of Georgia’s other growth drivers: smart, connected and electric mobility, an area where Mr. Wilson sees exponential potential for collaboration. 

“That is very much a hotspot in Israel right now too,” he said. 

Already, Israeli incubator Drive TLV — with influence from partners Cox Automotive and Novelis — has made Atlanta a fixture on its U.S. roadshow, and CuriosityLab at Peachtree Corners is wooing smart-city technologies from Israel. 

“This is one of the few times in history where startups can literally come in and compete at the highest level with companies that have been around for generations,” Mr. Wilson said. 

If anyone can sell all this to investors, it’s the governor, Mr. Wilson added. 

“I have never been in a meeting between the governor and a CEO when he doesn’t ask them to move their headquarters to Georgia,” he said. 

At the reception, he was able to tout the state’s No. 1 business ranking nine years running to about 150 people, and the itinerary was packed with visits to prospects and companies the governor was thanking for choosing Georgia.

“It shows why you bring a governor into a market like that. It really does raise the status of the delegation, drives media coverage and a buzz around all the meetings, and you’re meeting with the highest level decision makers both politically and economically. It’s great for me to have him back on the road.”

For more perspective, read Global Atlanta’s full interview with Anat Sultan-Dadon, Consul General of Israel to the Southeastern United States, conducted via email upon her return: 

Anat Sultan-Dadon, Consul General of Israel to the Southeastern United States

Global Atlanta: What was the consulate’s role in coordinating the trip, and what did it mean to the CG to have a chance to travel with the Georgia group as opposed to just doing introductory work from this end? 

Consul General Sultan Dadon: Because this was an official visit of the Governor, heading a delegation from Georgia, we worked closely with our partners at the GDEcD in order to facilitate official meetings and visit components.

It was an incredible honor and privilege for me to be able to accompany the Governor and the delegation while in Israel for these meetings, and I look forward to all that will come as a result of the visit and the meetings that the Governor held.

From the Israeli side, how does Gov. Kemp’s visit raise the profile of the economic relationship with Georgia and the broader Southeast U.S.? Have you seen any change in the way that prospective Israeli investors view the region? We’re told that many think of other parts of the U.S. first.

Economic relations between Israel and the State of Georgia continue to grow, and I am confident that this visit will contribute to further expanding and strengthening the relations. During the official meetings, our economic relations were an important topic of discussion for both sides. Israeli officials discussed plans for specific economic delegations from Israel to Georgia in order to realize the significant potential that exists for collaboration and for Israeli companies to do business in Georgia.

In our interview, GDEcD Commissioner Pat Wilson mentioned the way that geopolitics and economics are intertwined in Israel — can you reflect on why it was important to have Georgia lawmakers and the governor engaged and how this will pave the way for deeper relationships? How has Israel benefited from the legislative caucus that was established in the Georgia State Legislature not too long ago? 

Anat Sultan Dadon: Governor Kemp and Georgia’s lawmakers on the delegation are all strong supporters of Israel and our bilateral relations. That friendship and support creates a welcoming environment and a level of trust that is conducive to our business relations. The fact that Georgia maintains economic representation in Israel through the GDEcD and has done so since 1994 is a political and economic decision that plays an important role in these relations.

The bipartisan and bicameral Georgia-Israel legislative caucus established last year is not only a clear reflection of the strength of our relations and the bipartisan support that we enjoy in Georgia, it also serves as a platform for engagement, speakers and activities related to Israel and our relations.

Any personal reflections you would like to share on Georgia-Israeli friendship, timing of this trip after the relaunch of Delta’s Tel Aviv flights, etc? 

Anat Sultan Dadon: The launch of the direct flights for the first time in over a decade is an incredibly important step towards further strengthening the close relations between Israel and Georgia. We welcome Delta’s decision to not only launch the direct flights, but also to turn them into daily flights. 

The direct flights are a game changer for so many, including the Jewish Community, Christian groups, tourists and businessmen and women. Having the direct connectivity and the flexibility of daily flights makes a difference for businesses. We are confident that this will help facilitate further economic growth in our bilateral trade.

As Israel celebrates its 75th year of independence, we also celebrate 75 years of strong bilateral relations between Israel and the United States, including, of course, the state of Georgia.

Just this past year, so much has been achieved in Israel-Georgia relations in so many fields, including, for example, the first ever partnership between an Israeli and American Film Festival between Cinema South and the Rome Georgia international film festival. Just last week, Ben Gurion University in Israel and Augusta University, who already have established relations in cyber security, announced a significant investment in joint academic and research partnerships between the universities. These examples highlight the extent, breadth and depth of our relations, and we are very excited about all that is yet to grow.

The warm reception in Israel by all who met with the Governor and his delegation, including the President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, all reflect the immense appreciation and importance that Israel sees in these relations and in Governor Kemp, who is a true friend of Israel.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...