Crist, Israel trade niceties, aim to trade more goods

Business ties are pushed as a visit to "greatest friend" opens.

Published May 30, 2007

JERUSALEM - Gov. Charlie Crist began a five-day goodwill mission to Israel on Tuesday, stressing the strong ties between Florida and the Jewish state and seeking to build up his political resume at the same time.

For a governor of Florida, the state with the nation's third-largest Jewish population, a visit to the Holy Land is a rite of passage, as it is for anyone holding or seeking federal office.

That hit home as Crist waited to meet with Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, while a group of U.S. senators, led by Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, did the same.

"Israel is the greatest friend Florida has and America has," Crist said at an opening-day lunch focusing on trade between the two states - or the lack of trade.

Officials of the U.S. Commerce Department's Commercial Service, in a briefing for Crist, released figures showing that Florida exports to Israel have declined in each of the past three years and that in the past 12 months, only 10 Florida firms received trade advice from the agency. One of the companies was Polypack Inc., whose 50 employees make shrink-wrapping machines in Pinellas Park.

"We would definitely like to see more clients from your state," said Yael Torres, a trade specialist.

She said California, with its far greater high-tech economy, sends many more business inquiries to Israel.

Crist said the trade between Florida and Israel is "not enough," but he has not yet made any specific recommendations to improve it. He said two areas where he believes the two states can boost trade are in pharmaceuticals and aerospace.

At a health care briefing, leaders of a major Israeli health care research center, the Weizmann Institute of Science, noted ongoing "collaborations" with two Florida firms, the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville and Scripps Research Institute in Palm Beach County.

Dr. Joel Sussman, a structural biologist at Weizmann, cited the potential of embryonic stem cells research to create artificial kidneys for diabetics and others.

Crist has stopped short of supporting embryonic stem cells in Florida in the face of strong legislative opposition.

The governor's first foray into international politics so far features more symbolism than substance. Among the handwritten talking points Crist jotted down before doing a TV interview was "face-to-face opportunities."

Clearly, the mission is partly about adding some heft to Crist's political resume at a time when he is being mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate - in large part because of his strong popularity, Florida's 27 electoral votes and its status as the largest swing state in presidential elections.

On his first day in the Middle East, Crist announced an addition to his itinerary: a weekend visit to Amman to meet with Jordan's leader, King Abdullah II, the son of the former King Hussein.

Crist credited Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Palm Beach County, a liberal on many issues and a passionate supporter of Israel, for suggesting the meeting.

"He encouraged it, very much so," Crist said . He called the king "a reasonable man" and "a moderate voice, if you will, in the region."

Abdullah has aimed to reconcile the domestically unpopular 1994 peace agreement with Israel and friendly relations with the United States with the need to appease Jordan's more militant Arab neighbors and its own large Palestinian population.

The normally well-rested Crist arrived in Jerusalem looking bleary-eyed after an all-night El Al flight from Newark.

Adding to the discomfort of the long ride was the fact that Crist is recovering from what he called a "divot" on his right thigh caused by a spider bite - 12 days ago on a Keys fishing trip - that went untreated for a week.

"It only hurts when I sit," Crist said.

He said he thinks it was a brown recluse spider, though that species is uncommon in Florida. Dr. Steve Collins, a St. Petersburg surgeon, treated him after Crist's father urged his son to see a doctor.

The other elected officials with Crist include U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami; state Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston; Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House minority leader; Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach; and Stacy Ritter, a Broward County commissioner.

Wexler, a frequent visitor to Israel who was instrumental in shaping Crist's schedule, is expected to join the entourage today.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

Fast Facts:

What bit the governor?

Gov. Charlie Crist is recovering from a bite that he thinks was from a brown recluse spider, or "fiddleback," a venomous Midwest spider.

Though bites are frequently reported in Florida emergency rooms, experts say the half-inch-long spiders are rare here. Other culprits often deserve the blame.

"More often than not, what's bitten you is not a brown recluse spider," said Denise Feiber of the Florida Department of Agriculture. "They are very rare in our state, except in the Panhandle. Their bite is extremely difficult to diagnose unless you have the spider in hand."

The bite is seldom fatal. Some victims never develop symptoms, though others experience pain and swelling, followed by a blister that kills tissue leaving a crater in the flesh. Treatment often includes surgical removal of the wound and skin grafts.

Experts believe brown recluse spiders are brought to Florida in luggage and shipping crates. In recent years, specimens have been discovered in Alachua, Bay, Dade, Duval, Escambia, Jefferson, Leon, Orange, Osceola and Pasco counties.

Experts say that other insects, including ants, wasps, bed bugs and fleas, can cause similar wounds in allergic individuals.

Times staff writer Jeff Klinkenberg