GOLAN HEIGHTS, Israel — Sen. Rand Paul doesn't explicitly deny that his eight-day visit to the Holy Land represents the launch of a 2016 Republican presidential nomination run, describing the trip as "more an effort to become part of an international stage."
But at least some of the 40 evangelical Protestant leaders traveling with Mr. Paul think otherwise.
"This trip to meet with Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians is absolutely the first step in his 2016 White House campaign," said David Lane, evangelical political organizer and president of the Los Angeles-based Pastors and Pews.
Mr. Paul joined the pastors on a tour bus climbing its way to the Israeli side of the 9,000-foot Golan Heights; the other side is Syrian territory.
Many others on the bus said they were convinced that Mr. Paul is starting a political climb to even greater heights.
"I certainly hope this [trip] catapults him into the 2016 presidential race," said Mallory Factor, a best-selling author, professor at The Citadel and a Jewish-American admirer of the junior senator from Kentucky.
As the son of former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, whose conservative libertarian views alienated many Israel supporters here and in the United States, the younger Mr. Paul said he was visiting to show that he is a friend of Israel's — but also thinks enhanced Palestinian-Israeli trade and a thriving economy will encourage a permanent peace in the region.
The trip is not just for sightseeing. Mr. Paul, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before traveling to Jordan for an audience with King Abdullah II.
Veteran evangelical communications strategist Larry Ross, for many years associated with evangelist Billy Graham, is another of the pastors, evangelical activists and Jewish leaders on the bus touring Israel. Mr. Ross said he was impressed "by Rand's outside-the-box solutions to peace in the region."
At a private dinner at the Jerusalem home of a London businessman and Jewish leader, Mr. Paul politely challenged an Israeli Cabinet official who contended it was impossible to deal with Palestinian leaders because their only goal is the elimination of Israel as an independent state.
"Instead of nodding his head in agreement with his Israeli hosts at the dinner as most American politicians would do, Paul said he disagreed and suggested ways to improve trade with the Palestinian Authority, Gaza and Israel to raise the living standard of the Palestinians and give them a bigger stake in peace," Mr. Ross said.
A fierce critic of U.S. foreign aid spending, Mr. Paul defended that stance in talks with groups in Israel, arguing that the United States will be a more reliable ally abroad if it fixes its financial problems at home.
"It will be harder to be a friend of Israel if we are out of money," he told the Jerusalem Institute of Market Studies, The Associated Press reported. "It will be harder to defend Israel if we destroy our country in the process."
Iowa Republican Party Chairman A.J. Spiker, who describes himself as a conservative Catholic, said he had been impressed with the "way Rand brings people together — and raises the level of debate over the problems between Israel and the Arab nations well above what other politicians do."
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