Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (Rogelio V. Solis, Associated…)
Though the U.S. presidential primaries are still a year from now, a different sort of contest is underway in Israel.
Beginning Saturday, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour will be the third potential GOP presidential candidate to visit the Jewish state since the first of the year, and the second during the protests in neighboring Egypt. Barbour will arrive on the heels of Mike Huckabee, who spent much of the week touring the country, and Mitt Romney, who swung through in January.
And like Romney and Huckabee, Barbour is expected to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and tour some holy sites. Barbour's trip is being sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition, an organization that promotes ties between Israel and GOP politicians, and it should provide him with the same sort of opportunity to bolster his foreign-policy credentials while at the same time courting support from Jewish voters in the United States.
"This visit will give Gov. Barbour the opportunity to learn more about the difficulties facing Israel, about the current thinking of Israel's political, military, and economic leaders, and about the Jewish state's exciting advancements in the development of new technologies," coalition executive director Matt Brooks said in a statement.
During his visit, Huckabee, who has made more than a dozen trips to Israel, has used the crisis in Egypt to demonstrate his solidarity with conservative Christians and Jews alike by supporting the building of Israeli settlements in disputed territory and warning of the dangers of Islamic influence in the region.
The former Arkansas governor suggested that President Obama was overly hasty in withdrawing support for the government of embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He told Fox News that Israelis to whom he had spoken had expressed "real shock and surprise down to the average on-the-street Israeli citizen at how quickly the Obama administration abandoned a 30-year ally and a longstanding friend to peace and stability, President Mubarak."
Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor, also attended a ceremony marking the dedication of a new Israeli neighborhood in East Jerusalem, which has been claimed by Palestinians. He defended the right of Israel to build settlements there and in the West Bank.
"I cannot imagine, as an American, being told I could not live in certain places in America because I was Christian, or because I was white, or because I spoke English," he said.
Part of Huckabee's trip was sponsored by the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, which promotes establishing settlements on contested land. Huckabee also suggested that a separate Palestinian state should not be established using land Israel has occupied.
"There are vast amounts of territory that are in the hands of Muslims, in the hands of Arabs," Huckabee said.
Netanyahu has enjoyed a complicated relationship with Obama, who notably criticized further settlements in a speech in Cairo in 2009. During his visit, Huckabee, speaking in an interview on Israeli television, called Netanyahu "one of the world's great leaders." The prime minister in return said Huckabee was "a great friend, a great friend."
Huckabee was accompanied on the trip by actor and "tea party" activist Jon Voight. As he met with Netanyahu earlier in the week, Huckabee joked about Voight's role in the classic 1972 fillm "Deliverance."
"When that movie came out, it set camping back 25 years," Huckabee said. "Nobody would go."
The prime minister laughed heartily.