Bay Area leaders accompany Bush on delegation to Israel

On his way to visit relatives, Steve Poizner narrowly dodged a rocket.

The state’s insurance commissioner was in the Israeli port city of Ashkelon, with his wife and daughter, when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a nearby mall, injuring 14 people.

“We weren’t that far away from the shopping center,” says Poizner. “It really highlights the need to make sure that Israel is a strong democracy with secure borders. I saw firsthand how dangerous it can be.”

Poizner was part of an official U.S. honorary delegation visiting Israel recently, along with President Bush, who was attending celebrations in honor of Israel’s 60th birthday.

The delegation was made up of nearly 80 prominent Jewish Americans, several of whom are from the Bay Area, who were chosen for their community, political and business leadership.

Upon his return to the U.S., Poizner compared his impression of Israel with that of his previous experience working in Silicon Valley: “Israel is like a startup — there’s a positive energy, and [the citizens] all seem to have a really strong bond.”

One of the highlights of the trip, Poizner said, was climbing up Masada, the historic mountaintop fortress at the west end of the Judean Desert that overlooks the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. Poizner likened Masada — site of a legendary battle where Jewish rebels made their last stand against a Roman garrison after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. — to “the Alamo of Israel.”

Another delegate was Linda Law, a real estate developer from Atherton and founder of Law and Associates. “It was an uplifting experience … both joyous and enlightening,” Law said. “But at the same time there isn’t a corner in Jerusalem that doesn’t have either police or soldiers with M-16s, so it’s quite a dichotomy.”

Law said the highlight of the trip for her was an event called “60 Years of Friendship Between Israel and the United States,” where President Bush, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke.

“It was very clear on my trip that all Israelis love the United States, and most are very supportive of our president,” said Law. Bush’s approval ratings in Israel are in the mid-60th percentile, higher than in any other Western nation, ostensibly due to his strong pro-Israel stance.

Richard Sideman, a San Francisco attorney and national president of the American Jewish Committee, headed an 11-person delegation from the AJCommittee.

“The role of the delegation was to speak and identify ourselves to members of Israeli organizations … and to hear what the president was saying and take that back to our own organizations,” says Sideman. “One of the great advantages was to listen, and listen closely, to how [Israelis’] perceptions met with our own and if there were differences, talk about how to reconcile them.”