A tour of the Holy Land is a classic feature of presidential campaigns -- witness Mitt Romney's visit to Israel in 2012. But sometimes smart, forward-looking Republicans go there before -- way before -- the election cycle even begins. That's the case of Marco Rubio, who touched down at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport on Feb. 17, more than a month ahead of when his president is scheduled to visit the Middle East himself.
In an official statement on his website dated Feb. 16, Rubio wrote that this is his second visit to Israel.
“America's friendship with Israel is a truly special one, and we must continue to do all we can to support this beacon of democracy, religious freedom and free enterprise in the heart of an unstable region," he wrote.
The Florida senator, who is already being touted as a top Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential campaign, took some flak for not mentioning Israel even once in his rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Feb. 12. Obama mentioned Israel once in his speech.
The Florida Senator made his trip a month after U.S. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul also took a weeklong trip to Israel, and was also greeted with much fanfare by the media. Paul's visit also included a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, several photo ops with members of the Knesset and a camel ride through the West Bank. And again like Rubio, Paul is being touted by the American media as a likely presidential contender for 2016.
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Rubio said he is visiting the country in his capacity as a member of both the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees. He is scheduled to meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and said that he will discuss the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
According to a source with knowledge of the schedule, Rubio, who was in Jordan on Tuesday to meet with King Abdullah, met with Netanyahu Wednesday afternoon, a meeting followed by a small private dinner held in his honor that included “one senior minister from the Likud party.”
Rubio’s visit, while probably made in the spirit of it’s-never-too-early-to-start-campaigning, has nonetheless made him extremely popular among the Israeli press and politicians. His declaration on Wednesday that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, a point that is hotly contested by the Palestinians, coupled with positive reviews of his visit in the Israeli media, have helped bolster his image.
But don’t be fooled. Rubio isn't necessarily Israel’s next American superstar -- yet. Some in Israel's elite, among whom Barack Obama isn't necessarily very popular, may be looking for a new American figure on whom to put their chips. But the 41-year-old freshman senator may be still too green.
“He’s still very unknown publicly,” said Natan Sachs, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “The favorable response from the media is because his words have been very pro-Israel, but that’s a reflection of the way the Israeli media views the American media.”
The American media has taken to heralding Rubio as the savior of the Republican Party come 2016. “He’s seen as an important contender and a rising star,” Sachs said. “And given the less-than-warm relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, there’s a natural tendency in Israel to look toward the Republican Party.”
But Sachs emphasized that American political visits to Israel were quite routine, and the hype around Rubio didn’t mean much for now. “He’s a contender, but it’s not a huge phenomenon,” Sachs continued.
“The majority of Israelis still don’t know who he is.”
Obama's visit will create much more hoopla, and tension, Sachs said.
Rubio is scheduled to return to the States on Friday. Obama is scheduled to arrive in Israel on March 20.