Dan Onorato made a few conclusions about Israel after his first trip there last week:
• It’s a strong ally;
• It’s a good business partner;
• It’s worth modeling.
“What an unbelievable story where Israel is today,” the Allegheny County Executive said. “Considering it’s 60 years old, they’ve take this dry country and made it a green, prosperous country.”
Onorato, one of seven declared candidates for governor in 2010, just returned from a seven-day swing through Israel, touring the country with Jewish leaders from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
The other declared candidates are state Auditor General Jack Wagner, Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty, Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel and Philadelphia businessman Tom Knox for the Democrats, and state Attorney General Tom Corbett and U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach for the Republicans.
Onorato, who returned to the States this past Saturday, told The Chronicle that he and his wife, Shelly, visited several religious, cultural and social points of interest, including a kibbutz where two former IDF soldiers have started a program to help at-risk children, and Kishorite Village, the Misgav–based community where residents with emotional issues live together on a former kibbutz and support themselves with a variety of jobs, including toy-making.
“It’s a program we could obviously duplicate here,” Onorato said of Kishorite Village. “It’s a program I think could be very successful in the Untied States.”
And though the visit wasn’t billed as a business trip, Onorato met with several mayors and regional leaders while in Israel.
“We did see a lot of different aspects of government,” he said. “There was a lot we experienced. As an executive, I’ve always believed we can learn from each.”
As governor, he said he would be interested in supporting business ventures between Israeli and Pennsylvania companies.
“I’ve had a couple friends — relationships — that are looking at Israeli and American companies doing business,” Onorato said, “so from a business point of view there’s a lot of potential there.”
Politically, he said he supports the current efforts in Harrisburg to divest from companies doing business with Iran, calling the Islamic republic’s nuclear program “a real threat in the Middle East that affects so many countries.”
On the flip side, Onorato pledged never to support divestment measures to pressure Israel to change its policies in the West Bank, as opponents advocate doing.
“Absolutely not, I’m glad to make that clear,” he said. “Israel is our ally, a strong democracy and a great success story in the Middle East.”
Pittsburgh attorney Jeff Letwin, a friend and supporter of Onorato who joined him on the mission, said the trip was independent of any Jewish organization or federation.
“It was all private,” he said.
He said Billy Rudolph, David Shapira and two Onorato friends from Philadelphia were also on the trip, and that Cindy Shapira worked on the itinerary.
Onorato won’t be the only gubernatorial candidate next year with ties to Israel or at least the Jews.
Hoeffel, who ran against Robert P. Casey Jr. in 2006 for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, has visited Israel three times in his political career, twice as a congressman. During those visits, he met with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
He also authored a House bill (which didn’t pass) to set up a Middle East “Marshall Plan” designed to improve living standards in the region.
He also served on House International Relations Committee, “so I was very interested in peace in the Middle East,” he said.
Scranton Mayor Doherty has not visited Israel, but his spokesman, Mark Nevins, said he maintains good relations with his city’s Jewish community, including fundraising for the Hebrew Day School and working with Jewish leaders to set up Scranton’s only eruv.
The campaigns for the other declared candidates did not return calls from The Chronicle.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1005.)