SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday he is the first governor to bring a trade mission to the volatile West Bank, where he met last week with the outgoing Palestinian prime minister.
"The Palestinians were very pleased that we stopped by. They always feel kind of like they're second fiddle," Herbert said at a news conference about the four-day trade mission to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel and the Palestinian capital of Ramallah.
Herbert said he made it clear as he talked with outgoing Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad and other officials in the West Bank "we don't want to pick sides in terms of the conflicts that are going on over there. We just want to talk business."
The U.S. consulate hosted a lunch for the more than 30 Utah business and government representatives on the trade mission with the Palestinian-American Chamber of Commerce, and the group visited a mobile phone company while in Ramallah.
"The fact that we were the first ones to do it to the West Bank is not lost on them," Herbert said. "They really are anxious to take advantage of the opportunity to expand their trade into America, foster better relationships with the Israelis."
The governor said at least a dozen members of the Palestinian chamber said they had ties to Utah, including a businessman who claimed to have roomed with football star Steve Young at BYU.
Now, Herbert said, there is talk of a Palestinian trade mission to Utah.
Spencer Eccles, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, said the state does not currently track trade with the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank.
That may change now that the World Trade Center in Utah has signed agreements to continue discussions about business opportunities with the Palestinian-American chamber directly and through the Salt Lake Chamber, Eccles said.
Business in Israel was the focus of the trip, which was originally scheduled for last December but canceled because of the security risks resulting from a deadly confrontation between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza.
Israel was Utah's 24th largest export partner last year, according to figures provided by the GOED, buying more than $50 million in precious metals, medical instruments, computers, pharmaceutical products and other items.
Herbert also met with both Israeli President Simon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres, the governor said, encouraged economic development in the Palestinian community as a way to improve relations with Israel.
"It's hard to do business with your enemies," Herbert said.
Netanyahu surprised him by asking about the strength of Utah's economy, seen as one of the nation's best states for business, Herbert said.
"He wanted to know what we were doing," the governor said, including to reform business regulations.
"That's part of the exchange," Herbert said, describing trade missions as a way to share information about the state internationally and heighten awareness of its business opportunities.
For Natalie Kaddas, general manager of family-owned Kaddas Enterprises in Salt Lake, the trip was a chance to pitch the plastic covers the company makes to protect power poles from birds that can short out a transmission line.
Kaddas said the company has already sold its product in Kuwait but was looking for a way to sell to the government-owned power company in Israel because the country is on a major migratory path for birds.
"This was a really good opportunity for us," Kaddas said, even though no contracts were signed. She said the company is filling out the paperwork needed to sell to the Israeli power company and preparing a price list.
GOED Board Chairman Mel Lavitt said the head of Infinidat, a data storage company, suggested Utah might be a good place for a new manufacturing facility that could bring hundreds of jobs.
"I think that we will see other Israeli companies knocking on our door," Lavitt said.
The governor is expected to lead trade missions to both Great Britain and Brazil in the next year.
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. led a trade mission to Israel in 2009, just before he was named President Barack Obama's U.S. ambassador to China, a post Huntsman later resigned to make an unsuccessful bid for the White House.