Davis, in Mideast, promotes high-tech

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

In one day, Gov. Gray Davis held a morning meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza City, a midday session with Israeli President Ezer Weizman in Tel Aviv, and an afternoon tête-á-tête with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem.

The governor spent an extraordinary four days in the Middle East last week, concluding a 14-day, six-nation overseas trade and diplomatic mission. He broke new ground on several fronts in the Middle East.

Davis set markers as California's first governor to meet with Arafat and the state's first sitting governor to visit an Egyptian leader when he met with President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.

He spent much of the trip promoting California businesses, and repeating to one high-profile official after another — from Likud party leader Ariel Sharon to Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy — that the Golden State is a big supporter of the peace process.

Wednesday of last week, Davis told reporters in Tel Aviv that his message to Arafat, Barak and others was essentially the same: "Our high-tech industry can play a very large role in the prosperity that will follow the peace."

As for the prospect of that happening, Davis trumpeted his optimism in a speech at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva. "[Barak] told me he is going to find a way to make peace in the Middle East," he told an audience of students and professors. "The way he said it to me, I could tell by the determination in his voice that he wants to allow all people to enjoy the prosperity of peace in the Middle East."

Davis and his entourage, which included about 20 major donors to his 1998 gubernatorial campaign, visited England, Ireland, Scotland and Greece before reaching the Middle East.

The Israel portion of the trip was organized by the Israeli consulates in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

While the main goal of the trip was to boost California's exports, the immediate impact of the journey was modest, with Davis announcing only two financial deals before he returned to California on Saturday evening.

The Santa Rosa-based firm DRiWATER, which manufactures a gel-sealed water product used for irrigation, received orders of $4.8 million, mostly from Egypt. Menlo Park-based Accurate Sound secured a $2 million contract to provide air-traffic control recording equipment to the Egyptian government.

Despite the sparse immediate harvest, "the groundwork, I'm sure, was laid for many things," Israeli Consul General Daniel Shek said from his San Francisco office Monday, the day he returned from the trip.

"Official state visits are not usually the format in which things emerge and are finalized in one visit," he added.

One concrete development was a formal agreement, signed by Davis, between Ben-Gurion University's biotechnology department and a newly formed council of California heavyweights in the biotech industry. The link is designed to promote economic growth and development.

At the formal announcement of the agreement, Ben-Gurion University president Avishay Braverman said he wants the area near the university in Beersheva to become the Silicon Valley of the Holy Land, pointing to Stanford University's bonds with nearby high technology in the Bay Area.

A high-tech executive from Cupertino who was on the trip is thinking in even bigger terms.

"With hundreds of thousands of potential [computer] users, Israel can become the focal point of the economy in the Middle East, much like California is in the United States," said Zvi Alon, the CEO of NetManage, which markets networking software, and the founder of NetVision, an Internet service provider in Israel.

In his capacity as the Northern California chairman of the California-Israel Chamber of Commerce, Alon helped arrange some of the meetings Davis attended.

An Israeli who has lived in the United States for 20 years, he applauded the way Davis tried to make further economic inroads into Israel, which ranks as California's 25th-largest export market. Last year, according to the governor's office, California exports to Israel totaled $726 million, an increase of nearly 45 percent since 1990.

Still, it's only a small fraction of California's worldwide export total of $105 billion.

Economics aside, Davis was praised by Elliot Brandt, regional director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, for having the wherewithal to get an "on-the-ground understanding" of the realities of the Middle East. He said that is especially important because of the influence Davis has nationally.

"He has a real ability to play a leadership role with his fellow governors, and in his workings with national elected officials," Brandt said. "[This visit] was all the more important with trade dramatically expanding between California and Israel, and with the peace process moving faster than it has in years."

Making his fourth trip to Israel but his first as governor, Davis began his visit by going to Jerusalem to meet with Mayor Ehud Olmert, and to visit Yitzhak Rabin's grave and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. After that, he met with Levy and then with Sharon.

"It was an official visit in every sense," Shek said. "He was considered with the highest regard. The levels of meetings he obtained are usually reserved for heads of state and foreign ministers. [Israeli officials] understand the importance of California." According to the governor's office, California's economy ranks as the world's eighth largest.

On his second day in the Middle East, Davis traveled to the Gaza Strip to meet with Arafat at his headquarters on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Davis met privately with Arafat for about 30 minutes, after which the two walked hand-in-hand into a briefing room to answer questions from Davis' delegation.

"I must admit it was strange to be in the same room with him [Arafat], very strange as a matter of fact," Alon said. "I was shaking hands with a person who not so long ago I actually hated. But I can say I did overcome those feelings fairly quickly once we started having conversations."

Davis offered California's expertise in a variety of areas, from crop irrigation and sewage treatment to environmental cleanup — all considerable problems in the overpopulated, impoverished Gaza. Davis also told Arafat that he hoped to encourage California high-tech companies to set up shop in Palestinian areas.

Arafat, in turn, said he hoped that trade might some day be conducted directly with foreign companies, without Israeli mediation. "All our trade and economic activity is going through Israelis," Arafat told the group.

Later in the day, Davis met with Weizman in Tel Aviv. Then it was on to Jerusalem, where he met with Barak, a fellow Stanford University graduate.

"We were both born in 1942, both went to Stanford, both were in the army, although I only rose to a captain in Vietnam while he rose to chief of staff," Davis joked after the meeting. "I guess that's why he's a prime minister and I'm just a governor."

Davis told Barak that he believes further economic development in the Middle East is central to the success of the peace process, and that he wants California businesses to play a big part in that development.

Davis also praised the economic and scientific success Israel has achieved, but had another thought for Barak. "I said that whatever success Israel has currently enjoyed is only a fraction of the prosperity they will enjoy if peace comes to the region."

Barak and Davis also talked about stepping up Israel's commitment to the environment.

"The prime minister told me he just had the first meeting any prime minister has ever chaired on the environment," Davis said. "I told his ministers Israel needs to make progress on the environment" and that California's expertise can help. Davis said more than 20 percent of all U.S. environmental cleanup firms are based in California.

Davis took the opportunity to invite Barak to California. "He accepted," Davis said. "I don't think he'll come on his [next] trip, but he said he'd be delighted to come — probably in a year to 18 months."

Shek was ecstatic to hear that. "There are many, many people and organizations in California who are very eager for such a visit to happen," he said. "I'm sure it's going to happen. It's only a matter of when."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.