By Jenna Portnoy
April 1, 2012
JERUSALEM — In Gov. Chris Christie’s first overseas trip since taking office, the Holy Land is rolling out the red carpet.
Christie and his family arrive here tomorrow morning for the start of a whirlwind tour of Israel that winds through Tel Aviv, stops in Tiberius and ends Thursday in the Golan Heights.
He will have a private dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meet with President Shimon Peres and cap the Holy Week trek with a personal visit to Jordan with King Abdullah II.
The attention will surely reignite speculation that Christie is on the short list of vice presidential candidates for the likely Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. Barring that, it’s never too early to build foreign policy credentials necessary for a 2016 stab at the White House.
“That’s not why I’m going,” Christie said in an interview last week. “Why I’m going is because I really believe that it’s incumbent upon a New Jersey governor to have a great … understanding and relationship with Israel given the makeup of our state, and I’m also somebody who wants to grow and expand my own mind and my own experiences, and that’ll make me a better leader.”
Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), the only Orthodox Jew in the Legislature, said visiting Israel is paramount to understanding Jewish people in New Jersey. Schaer, who lived in Israel for a year and a half and has visited many times, said the trip is also something of a prerequisite for someone like Christie.
“Politicians who reach a national level need to do a number of things and one of them is to visit Israel,” he said.
Part of Christie’s advance team and sponsors of the trip arrived Friday at the King David Hotel, which is famous for hosting diplomats since its opening in 1930 and was targeted in a 1946 bombing.
In the hotel lobby, Jacob Greenspan and Marc Turim, in Israel with their wives on a tour with their Chicago-area synagogue, perked up when they heard Christie was visiting.
“He gets down to business,” said Greenspan, a podiatrist. “I think he would make a good vice president.”
“And a good future president,” added Turim, who works in insurance. WELL-TRAVELED PATH
Israel has welcomed New Jersey governors since the 1980s, when Gov. Tom Kean visited to witness Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, dedicate its eternal flame to his father, Robert Winthrop Kean, one of the few congressmen to rail against Nazi atrocities from the floor of the U.S. House in the 1940s.
Kean, who has been a political mentor to Christie, said the trip is vital to Christie’s ability to represent New Jersey, which has the second-highest population of Jews after New York among the 50 states, because it matters how American leaders react to threats to Israel.
“Christie will have a voice in that because of his prominence,” he said. “It’s very important to be a knowledgeable voice. If he’s not already, he will be when he gets back.”
Christie stoked the fire last year with a private meeting with Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, and in February with a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group.
“And having America stand with Israel side by side, shoulder to shoulder,” he told the crowd, “is one of the great responsibilities, and one of the great honors of the 21st century. We need to stand for it loudly and clearly today.”
Dan Senor, who was an adviser to President George W. Bush as well as Romney, helped Christie prepare for the talk and will be on the trip. Unlike his bull-in-a-china shop approach to state government, Christie said he will tread lightly.
“I’m not going to give some speech on: Here are the 18 points of my Middle Eastern peace plan,” he said. “I think you have to know what you don’t know as much as what you do know.”
IRAN, SYRIA TALKS
For example, Christie declined to delve into the Iran sanctions act authored partly by U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, but said he expects to have discussions about Iran and Syria during the trip.
Former Gov. Christie Whitman, another Republican once rumored for vice presidential lists, courted controversy during a 1996 visit with plans to walk through a 2,500-year-old tunnel whose opening along Islam’s hallowed Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem sparked widespread violence. “We decided it was just too politically explosive,” she said last week. “I didn’t need to go through the tunnel to do the business of New Jersey.”
While many remarked on the condescending tone that Netanyahu seemed to strike with President Obama after a May 2011 meeting in the Oval Office, Christie said he sees himself getting along well with the prime minister. Both are headstrong.
“I do think that we’ll probably find a lot of common ground on things not only substantively,” he said, “but stylistically as well. I sense we take at least in some respects some similar approaches to leadership.”
RITE OF PASSAGE
Aaron David Miller, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the trip should be viewed not as pandering for votes back home, but a rite of passage. “This is Bibi (Benjamin Netanyahu) looking at the lay of the land and seeing this guy’s a comer,” said Miller who has advised six secretaries of state on U.S. policy on the Middle East and the Arab-Israel peace process. “In a weak Republican field, this guy’s a potential star. Israelis get that. Given who he is, that’s not out of the ordinary.”
Taking a page from Whitman’s playbook of making international trade missions, Christie plans to visit Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, which he said is considering expanding to New Jersey.
Christie said he hopes to “appropriately exploit” the similarities between Israel and New Jersey — they are about the same size and both have significant high-tech sectors — and make deals.
“Hopefully, we’ll be in a position to be able to announce something at the time because they do have a real significant interest in New Jersey,” Christie said.