- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 28, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Leaders of Israel and Mississippi say they want to increase what is now a tiny trade between the Magnolia State and Middle Eastern nation, building an economic relationship on top of political ties.

Gov. Phil Bryant and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer hosted a trade meeting Tuesday in Jackson. Dermer says Mississippi businesses can benefit from access to Israel’s technological innovation.

“You’re in a century of knowledge, and Israel holds the keys because we can innovate,” he told a luncheon at the Jackson Convention Complex.

Bryant, a Republican running for re-election this year even as strained relations between the Obama administration and Israel have become politically polarizing, said he wants Mississippi to enhance its economy by trading with an ally.

“That’s what it’s about, doing business with our friends, with a country the United States must stand with and Mississippi always will,” Bryant said.

Dermer dismissed concerns over calls from Americans to quit doing business with Israel because of disputes with Palestinians over statehood. He noted that most of the world’s largest technology companies have research facilities in Israel.

“They’re not coming there because they’re Zionists,” Dermer said. “They’re coming there because they want access to that winning formula.”

The U.S.-born Dermer, a key advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been at the center of the fractious relationship between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama. Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress, at the behest of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was arranged by Dermer, a former Republican operative.

Bryant visited Israel last year, meeting with Netanyahu, and plans to lead another trade delegation this year. Last week, the governor signed a bill requested by Netanyahu and passed by Mississippi lawmakers meant to curtail investment in Iran’s energy industry. That bill only passed, though, after concerns that it could damage Mississippi’s business relationships with some companies.

Mississippi has only a tiny trade with Israel currently as the state chief exports transportation equipment, chemicals, electronic products and appliances.

Of the $11.4 billion in goods and services that businesses sold abroad last year, only $33 million went to Israel. When Bryant asked attendees at the lunch to raise their hands if they were doing business with Israel, only a handful did.

Israeli businesses were meeting with Mississippi companies Tuesday, though. Bryant, for example said he hoped Raytheon Corp. could sell radars to the Israeli military.

“There’s nothing better than the most advanced radar helping protect Israel, unless it’s made in Forest, Mississippi,” Bryant said.

Israel does have some business ties to Mississippi. Among the speakers was Robert Fogelsong, the CEO of Israel Aerospace Industries North America. Fogelsong, a former Air Force general and former president of Mississippi State University, leads a business that includes Stark Aerospace, a Columbus-based maker of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Another Israeli company, Emelia Cosmetics, purchased the former Pharma Pac factory in DeKalb last year.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy

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