Israel Primary: Potential 2012 Candidates Flock To The Holy Land

Possible GOP presidential hopefuls visit Israel in advance of the 2012 primary.

Feb. 5, 2011 -- Des Moines. Manchester. Jerusalem?

Besides the key early primary states, few destinations appear to be as important to potential 2012 Republican presidential field these days as Israel.

Former Arkansas governor and Fox News host Mike Huckabee has spent the past week in Israel, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was there last month, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour left Friday for a five-day trip, and Sarah Palin has indicated she has plans to go later this year.

The trips offer potential candidates a chance to burnish their foreign policy bona fides with one of American's most important allies, and boost their standing with the Jewish and evangelical voters in the U.S.

Like many elected officials who have traveled to Israel recently, Barbour's trip is sponsored by a Washington, D.C.-based interest group. Barbour, who was scheduled to land in Israel Saturday afternoon, is going there under the auspices of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Matt Brooks, the group's executive director, who is accompanying the Mississippi governor on the trip, described the itinerary as "grueling" and "intense" without a lot of downtime.

Barbour's agenda includes meetings with Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a Feb. 9 speech to the Herzliya Conference, a global policy gathering.

"Having an opportunity to go on these kinds of trips and to see the country first hand and to talk to the leadership and policy folks directly is an invaluable experience," Brooks said in an interview with ABC News. "This trip is extremely relevant and timely given what's taking place in Egypt right now."

Unlike some of his other Republican counterparts, Barbour has declined to criticize the Obama administration for its handling of the Egypt crisis, and it was unclear whether he will address the issue while overseas. Without getting into specifics, a source close to Barbour promised the governor would deliver a "serious speech" on Feb. 9.

The Republican Jewish Coalition also sponsored a trip with Barbour in 1994 when he was chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Brooks said his organization has reached out to other potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates about planning similar excursions. But the coalition is not the only Washington group organizing trips, which cost thousands of dollars, for elected officials and would-be candidates.

The American Israel Education Foundation, an offshoot of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, sponsored a portion of Romney's visit to Israel last month. While there, Romney met with Netanyahu and discussed "a series of issues, including advancing the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians ... and the challenge to the international community posed by the Iranian nuclear program," according to a statement from the prime minister's office.

Romney generated little news during his visit, but Huckabee stirred some controversy this week by voicing strong support for Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem. It's not the first time he has done so.

"I cannot imagine, as an American, being told I could not live in certain places in America because I was Christian, or because I was white, or because I spoke English," he said, according to The Associated Press. Those settlements have been condemned by the U.S. government and much of the international community.

For Huckabee, who has traveled to Israel more than a dozen times, and other Republican officials, their time in the country also represents a chance to connect with evangelical Christians in the U.S.

"It seems that many evangelicals are more supportive of Israel than some of the Jews I know in America," Huckabee told the Christian Broadcasting Network in a video message he taped this week. "So much of my own spiritual history and that of other evangelicals is rooted here -- every place our feet touches, it's a very special place."

He added, "As I love to tell many of my Jewish friends, Judaism can exist without Christianity, but Christianity cannot exist without Judaism."

While in Israel this week, Huckabee visited to several important holy sites, delivering lectures on their biblical significance to a tour group traveling with him. Huckabee advertised the trip on his website as a chance to "experience Israel in a way you never imagined possible."

The cost: $4,479, which includes round-trip airfare, five-star accommodations, meals, admission to sites, ground transportation and other incidentals, according to Huckabee's site.

Brooks said Barbour's trip will be tailored to the governor's particular interests. His itinerary includes stops at the Noble Energy offshore gas rig and the Better Place electric car facility outside Tel Aviv.

"Most come away from these trips, not only falling in love with the country," Brooks said on Thursday, "but certainly also having a much deeper understanding of the complexities that affect the region."

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