Christie is a Hit on Israel Trip

The New Jersey governor may have burnished his v.p. credentials

By Maggie Haberman
|  Friday, Apr 6, 2012  |  Updated 6:39 PM EDT
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Christie is a Hit on Israel Trip

The governor's first international trip came at a time when Christie, an early and earnest surrogate for Mitt Romney in the presidential primary, is widely being mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick for the likely GOP nominee.

Chris Christie’s credentials for making the vice presidential short-list grew this week.

The New Jersey governor just completed his first swing through Israel, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, touring areas of the region and getting a quick course in an area that has dominated the foreign-policy discussion in recent months.

It’s not unheard of for Garden State governors to make sojourns to Israel — it was done by Christie Todd Whitman and Tom Kean.

But his first international trip came at a time when Christie, an early and earnest surrogate for Mitt Romney in the presidential primary, is widely being mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick for the likely GOP nominee. And it gives Christie a foundation of his own should he end up running for the White House himself down the road.

Visits to Israel are becoming a key step for every presidential hopeful, given its importance on the global stage as well as its significance to evangelicals who hold sway in the Republican primaries.

“That was not a consideration in any of the thought process” behind the trip, insisted Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which co-sponsored the trip. “What was important to him, and what I think is an important point, is he wanted his first international trip as governor to be to Israel…I think it’s something he conveyed directly to the prime minister yesterday. New Jersey has the second-largest Jewish population in the country, and the governor of New Jersey, it’s perfectly understantable why he’d want to go to Israel.”

“The Middle East has consistently presented U.S. policymakers with perplexing geopolitics, in one of the most dangerous regions on the planet. There’s no substitute for being on the ground,” said Dan Senor, a former Bush administration official and current Romney foreign policy adviser, who traveled with Christie to Israel.

“Until one has learned first-hand from the people here living these complexities, it’s impossible to understand the microscopic proximity of the threats. You can’t begin to grapple with the force of history and its role in the conflicts, not to mention the role of regional economics and weapons profileration,” added Senor.

“In a matter of days, Governor Christie immersed himself in the substance. He didn’t show up with the ‘Christie Plan for Middle East Peace,’” Senor said. “He made it clear that he came to learn. Each time a meeting wrapped up with an Israeli political leader, military officer, or business leader, they would comment on how impressed they were by the governor. I was hearing this over and over wherever we went. They found it refreshing to be asked questions — a lot of questions — rather than be subjected to a lecture.”

The GOP presidential hopefuls have all been critical of the Obama administration’s approach to Israel, and suggested that there is a softness to the president’s policy toward the longtime ally — a notion Democrats aggressively push back on.

But with the heightened focus on Iran — and the box-checking by almost every presidential hopeful except for Ron Paul with a trip to Israel over the past year — the trip affords Christie the chance to speak in the future with some first-hand experience when asked about the state of world affairs.

 

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who himself has been a critic of Obama over Israel but now supports the president, said, “He may be the vice presidential candidate, and it’s always good to have the trips to Israel, Italy and Ireland.”

Koch added, “I happen to like [Christie]. I like his directness. It sort of reminds me of my own. There’s so few people who are direct in politics, who say what they really mean and he does and I do. Obviously I don’t agree with his susbstantive positions but he’s a likable person.”

Christie arrived Monday morning, and left late Thursday for a visit to Jordan. The Israel leg of his trip included a private meeting with Netanyahu, followed by a dinner with the prime minister. His busy schedule included a meeting with Peres, a visit to the Western Wall, a helicopter tour, private meetings with companies with business interests in New Jersey, and a trip north to Galilee, and later to the Golan Heights.

Christie also also met with Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Christie’s meeting with Netanyahu, which was largely policy-focused — including Israel’s concerns about Iran and that country’s nuclear capability — lasted over an hour, longer than initially planned, a source familiar with the sitdown said. Toward the end of the meeting, Netanyahu and Christie touched on the fact that both are known for their blunt styles, and compared notes on their greatest hits for a few minutes, the source said.

Later that night, Netanyahu and his wife hosted Christie and his wife Mary Pat at their home, something the prime minister does not do frequently with traveling dignitaries.

Christie got rock-star treatment at the Western Wall, where he was swarmed by tourists who recognized him. He got a similar reception elsewhere in Jerusalem from people, some from his home state, some from the tri-state area, but some from other places as well.

He laid a wreath at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum. He also took a strategic helicopter tour of the ring neighborhoods around Jerusalem — a perspective, sources said, that gave him a greater sense of the complexities of the situation and concerns surrounding its safety and preservation.

For a good part of the trip, Christie was asked about his own political future.

He dismissed the speculation, saying, “Anything I do fuels speculation for a future bid. When I wake up in the morning it fuels speculation for a future bid. So I can’t worry about that.”

Still, the governor did allow this: “The good thing about that is that there must be some people out there in my state and in my country who think that I’m doing some things that are worthwhile, and if that’s the case I’ll put up with the speculation in return for their admiration.”

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