- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sen. Marco Rubio met Wednesday with leaders in Israel as part of a swing through the Middle East, as the Florida Republican sought to burnish his foreign policy resume by paying tribute to the nation’s top ally in the region.

The trip, which included a stop in Jordan, came on the heels of a visit from Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky — another tea party favorite with potential White House aspirations in 2016 — and was billed as part of Mr. Rubio’s duties as a member of the Senate intelligence and foreign relations committees.

But the visit also gave Mr. Rubio the chance to pose for photos with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and to weigh in on some of the nation’s thorniest issues — in particular the fate of Jerusalem, which has played a major role in bogging down the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

Wading into a long-standing diplomatic impasse, Mr. Rubio assured Mr. Peres that Jerusalem is “of course the capital of your country” — echoing the claims of the Israeli government but putting him at odds with Palestinians who also see the city as the capital of a future independent state.

The back-to-back visits from Mr. Rubio and Mr. Paul have sent a strong signal that — no matter the outcome of the postelection civil war that has erupted within the Republican ranks — Israel and its security will remain one of the party’s policy touchstones.

“Regardless of how the internal fight shakes out in the end, ideologically there is not really any sentiment to abandon Israel,” said Mitchell Bard, executive director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.

“It is one of the real consensus issues for both parties. So that is going to be the same and probably as it was in the last campaign, where you have the Republicans’ candidate who is going to support Israel in every way, shape or form.”

Mr. Bard said the trips are part of the early presidential vetting process and will allow Mr. Paul, Mr. Rubio and whoever jets there next to “check off one box on the checklist of preparing to run for president.”

Despite being 6,000 miles away, Mr. Rubio and his office made sure to keep his constituents and reporters abreast of the latest stops on his journey.

They blasted out photographs of Mr. Rubio shaking hands with Mr. Peres, touring parts of the “Iron Dome,” the U.S.-funded defense system that intercepts short-range missiles, and joining Mr. Netanyahu in poking fun at the infamous water bottle incident, which marred the freshman senator’s official GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address.

Mr. Rubio also said in an interview with Britain’s Sky News network that the United States should be more “engaged” with “responsible” opposition forces in Syria, and better prepared for the fall of President Bashar Assad.

“I don’t think anyone is asking for the United States or the West to become militarily involved in terms of putting personnel on the ground, but I do think there is more we can do in terms of sharing intelligence with responsible actors within Syria. I think there is more we can do to capacitate a political leadership so there can be a political transition when Assad falls,” Mr. Rubio said, adding that the United States could also provide ammunition.

The trip is likely to play well with two key slices of the Republican Party: evangelical Christians and the national security hawks who say it is crucial that the United States maintain strong diplomatic and military ties with its No. 1 ally in the Middle East.

Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said Mr. Rubio and Mr. Paul are “smart to head to Israel early in this presidential cycle.”

“Any Republican candidate wants to plant his flag in Israel, not just in Iowa and New Hampshire,” he said, alluding to the states that open the GOP primary process. “Christian conservatives are a big chunk of GOP primary voters in a large majority of states, and they care about Israel about as much as Jewish Americans do. Even more, white evangelicals stick with the Republican nominee in November even when other groups flake off.”

Exit polls found that evangelical and born-again Christian voters backed GOP nominee Mitt Romney, a Mormon, by a 78 percent to 21 percent margin over Mr. Obama in the 2012 election.

Mr. Romney made a concentrated effort to cast Mr. Obama as reluctant supporter of Israel, blasting the way he handled the Middle East peace process and accusing him of appeasing, rather than confronting, the Iranians over their disputed nuclear program.

Mr. Bard said the steadfast GOP support for Israel is somewhat ironic given that Jewish voters tend to vote for Democrats.

The average Democrat in presidential races since 1916 has received 71 percent of the Jewish vote, while the average Republican received 24 percent of the vote, he said.

Mr. Romney’s message — and questions about Mr. Obama’s early approach to Israel — helped the Republican cut into that margin slightly. Mr. Obama won the Jewish vote 69 percent to 30 percent — slightly below the 78 percent to 24 percent margin among Jewish votes he won over Sen. John McCain of Arizona in 2008.

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