JERUSALEM — Israeli politicians and diplomats expressed surprise over Gov. Jon Corzine’s loss to Republican Chris Christie in last Tuesday’s New Jersey gubernatorial election.
They recalled his last visit to Israel in July 2008, days before the arrival of then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. They said it was ironic that the same Corzine who sang Obama’s praises to Israelis lost his job despite the overwhelming support he received from the president of the United States.
Israeli businessman Alon Pinkas, who served as consul-general in New York from 2000 to 2004, fondly recalled dozens of meetings with Corzine in New Jersey and three times in Israel.
“He was always a deep friend of Israel,” Pinkas said. “He was a personal friend who could be called at any time to get a point across.
“I wish good luck to his successor, who could be just as good a friend to Israel, but as an individual and as an Israeli, I will miss Corzine as a friend in public office,” said Pinkas.
Recollecting the governor’s attempts to reassure Israelis about the Democratic presidential candidate, Pinkas said, “Corzine told Israelis that they did not need to be anxious about Obama, and it worked. Some have changed their minds since then, but in due time it could change again.”
Obama has since suffered from dismal approval ratings among Israelis, leading some politicians here to project that the president was more hindrance than help in Corzine’s failed re-election bid.
Former Israeli Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On, who is now a Kadima Party Knesset member, said he was surprised to hear of Corzine’s defeat.
“Corzine was a real expert on the economy, so he really should have won,” Bar-On said. “He lost against all odds, due to the unpopularity of Obama.”
Bar-On, who met with Corzine at length during a trip he made to Israel in July 2008, said that Corzine proved his friendship to Israel in countless ways. “I was very impressed by him,” he said. “But I can’t give advice to the voters of New Jersey.”
President Shimon Peres, then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu each devoted at least an hour on their busy schedules to their meetings with Corzine on that trip.
Arye Mekel, who was consul-general in New York from 2004 to 2007, said he and Corzine worked together on New Jersey’s trade agreement with Israel. Corzine also established the New Jersey-Israel Commission, which promotes trade, science and technology, tourism, and cultural and economic exchanges, as a permanent body within the Department of State.
Mekel said that before he left the consulate, Corzine hosted a farewell breakfast at the governor’s mansion in Princeton. When Corzine came to Israel, Mekel reciprocated by hosting him at a dinner.
Mekel said he was impressed by Corzine’s interest in Judaism and Israel. He recalled that Corzine attended a lecture the diplomat gave at a NY synagogue as a private citizen. When Corzine told him that he was at his talk, Mekel responded that he didn’t notice him because with his beard and the kipa on his head, he thought Corzine was just another rabbi.
“We often spoke about the similarities of Israel and New Jersey, including their size, population, and hi-tech economies,” Mekel said.
“He really wanted to do things for the Israel-New Jersey partnership,” Mekel said. “He recognized that the partnership was not one-sided and that both states really help each other.”
Gordon Haas, a member of the NJ-Israel Commission, said he expects no real change after Christie succeeds Corzine.
“Republicans are known for being pro-business and that’s what the commission is about,” said Haas. “Christie has said he would like to go to Israel, and he has never been there.”