Texas Governor Rick Perry was excited to visit Israel this week, just like he was in the past. Perry, 63, who has been governor for the past 13 years, has recently had another granddaughter join his family. Perry's son named her Ella, after the extended family had visited the Ella Valley in the Judean Hills several years ago. "I had no idea how much of an impact the place would have on him," the 63-year-old governor told me during an interview this week in Tel Aviv.
Governor, I suppose this is not the first time you've come to visit us here in Israel. How do you find the country?
"First time I was [here] in '92. The food is a-lot better."
When you came here in 1992, we had the same security problems. It seems that we can't overcome this Iranian issue. And on the other hand, not only in America but also in Europe, people are fascinated by a smiling Iranian president. Do you share this fascination from a smiling Hasan Rouhani?
"You know, smiling is good; but I don't get confused... The issue is not [about] personality. The issue is the subject of whether or not Iran will become, will be allowed to become actually, a nuclear power, and the answer is no, under any circumstance... The answer for the world has to be no. My recommendation to the American leadership -- not just continue the sanctions but actually tighten the sanctions up, elevate the sanctions so that Iran and the Iranian people know that we are serious about this; that you can change leadership, but until you remove the centrifuges, until you remove... Why do you need enriched uranium for your energy industry. Other countries don't need that."
Would you say that Israel and the U.S. have a historical pact? Are relations as strong as ever?
"I don't think there has been a change in the relations between the American people and the Israeli people. I think there is still strong respect and support. I think there is concern that the current administration has an incoherent, muddling foreign policy. When you look at what occurred in Libya, Egypt, in Syria, I think there is appropriate concern by the Israeli people."
People think that some countries are eroding the U.S.' role as the only superpower. Do you think Israel's number one ally is in decline?
"I am not sure we can take a snapshot of just even the last five years, and say, 'Here is the direction the world is going' ... just four years ago we all looked at a rising China and now [not so much]... I think the United States is still a global superpower. So I think the U.S. is still a global superpower; how we project that and how we engage in the world is the real question. Again, I go back, this administration does not seem to have engaged in the historic way; they have not led from the front, to say the least. I think there is concern from our friends around the world, where they are not seeing consistent strong support from the United States and that is problematic."
Last time we met it was just one year before the U.S. presidential election; it was during the Republican primaries. Did the president win the election because he was the best choice or because the Republicans made a lot of mistakes?
"We live an interesting world, I would say. That is, one where it's very sharp sound bytes; little glimpses into this, into that; it's social media; it's show business to some degree; and I am not sure the current way we gather our information allows for an in-depth [view] of the accomplishments of individuals. The president is a very charismatic, photogenic, bright and polished orator. I think his policies, because he does not have a great deal of experience in executive management... He came to the job with none, and maybe there is concern about his on-the-job training. But listen, the American people engaged, they paid attention, they made a decision. I respect voters like I respect juries."
Everyone followed what happened with the shutdown and the debt issue and the fighting. People think America wants to commit suicide. Do you have any opinion about that?
"A number of things. There have been government shutdowns before. I am always intrigued that the media and the general public -- probably through the media -- point the finger at the Republican party and say, 'You are the reason the government is shut down.' The president of the U.S. stood up before this process started with [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid as I recall and proclaimed, 'I will not negotiate.' I am an executive. Have been for almost 13 years. I would never stand up in public... I can't think of any time I have even done it in private... and say,'I will not negotiate with you.' That is not being a leader. That is being a political animal interested in making a political point instead of governing the most powerful country in the world."
I understand you have come here to further Israel's relations with Texas. Is there anything new, any new contract or new agreement between Texas and Israel?
"What brought me here the first time in 1992 was the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Texas and the State of Israel on semi-arid land studies, [and cooperation through] professors, technologies, companies like Netafim -- which interestingly have offices in Houston now... There is an understanding that Israel and Texas are a-lot alike, like in climate, geography etc. Tomorrow we sign an agreement with the state of Israel and Texas A&M University (which will invest some 70 million dollars to build a campus in Nazareth)."
I think Israelis would like to know whether you plan to run for president again in two years.
"I will let them know around January, February 2015... It's possible."
Nevada's Republican governor, 50-year-old Brian Sandoval, is also excited to be in Israel. It's his first time here. Because he considers Israel and Nevada to be very much alike, it is likely that cooperation will increase over the coming years.
Governor, how would you sum up this trip?
"This is my first visit to Israel; it's something that I have looked forward to for a long time. It's part of my effort to diversify our economy, and part of that is having a global presence for our state. When we identified the things that we could be good at, we found Israel as a natural partner -- we have similar climates and we have similar topography. One of the reasons we are here this week is the water conference (called Watec) and the opportunity... Water is very important in Nevada and we felt that we would have an opportunity to partner with Israeli companies. "
The governor adds that education and the economy are his two biggest challenges.
"We still lead the country in unemployment -- so it's my goal to get Nevada working again. We are the second fastest improving state in the country with regard to unemployment... We are outperforming 34 other states in the amount of jobs that have been created in the private sector. We are spending an additional 500 million dollars on K-12 education; I am the first governor in the history of our state to invest $50 million on English language learners. The dynamics in the state are changing -- 48% of the students in Clark Country, which is Las Vegas, are Hispanic. So it is very important that we invest in early education so that they get a good start... I have to recognize that the demographics in our state are changing. And I have to look at the Nevada of now and at the Nevada of 20 years from now. That is why I am making an investment in those kids' early education so that when they graduate 12 years from now they will have jobs to step into. I think I am fortunate because I just finished a legislative session. I am a Republican. The legislature is controlled by the Democratic party. I am a fiscal conservative, we didn't agree on everything but we were able to work things out."
Can Israel still trust the friendship of the American people for its security and for its future.
"I think Israel can trust the American people... I know I will always be a strong supporter of Israel."
Can you guarantee that Vegas will stay Vegas 20 years from now?
"[Laughing] Vegas will always be great. That is the beauty of Vegas. It continues to reinvent itself... So I am confident that 20 years from now when you come to Las Vegas you will still have the opportunity to have the best entertainment, the best hotels, the best food, the best shows, all of it."
When you say I am the governor of Nevada, immediately Vegas comes to people's minds, right?
"It does... In my speech today I asked everyone 'How many of you have been to Las Vegas?' and three quarters of the room raised their hands."
When are we going to have direct flights from Tel Aviv to Vegas?
"I hope soon."
When I remind the Sandoval that some governors went on to become president, he smiles and says, "My only goal right now is to get re-elected next year... I love my job."