JERUSALEM — Dubbing her first-ever visit to Israel “private” might have been a smart move by Sarah Palin.
It enabled her to avoid being pressed for policy pronouncements on the Middle East upheavals swirling around the Jewish state and the nuances of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, while allowing her to project on her own terms that she is shoring up her foreign policy credentials.
The visit to Israel has heightened the sense that the former Alaska governor is building herself up as a potential 2012 presidential candidate.
The two-day Israel trip that started Sunday afternoon came after Palin participated in a high-profile event organized by India Today magazine in New Delhi in which she gave the keynote address. She was then questioned on foreign policy issues, singling out the falling of nuclear weapons into the hands of terrorists as the biggest threat to global security.
After praying at the Western Wall and while visiting Jerusalem's Old City, the former vice presidential candidate gushed like a tourist seeing the sites for the first time.
“Israel is absolutely beautiful and it is overwhelming to see and touch the cornerstones of our faith and I am so grateful to be here,” she said. “I'm very thankful to know the Israeli and American link will grow in strength as we seek peace along with you.”
In the view of Hebrew University professor of American studies David Ricci, Palin aimed to ''show she's taking an interest in foreign affairs, an area she was weak in two years ago as a vice presidential candidate. The idea is to look around, be photographed at some interesting places and then go back to her constituents and say she knows more than she did before.”
And even though the Israel visit was supposedly private, she was to confer over dinner Monday night with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “discuss the key issues facing his country, our ally Israel.”
She was shown around by Danny Danon, a member of the Knesset from Netanyahu’s Likud party who is an ardent supporter of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and the nemesis of the Israeli left, which has accused him of having McCarthyist ideas, something he has denied.
Some analysts perceived using Danon as a guide as a deliberate statement.
“You are coming down on the side of the settlers. You are saying you don't want to have the appearance of an even-handed government in Washington in the future,” said Bradley Burston, a columnist for the dovish Haaretz newspaper.
Danon did not respond to interview requests.
Palin’s visit was preceded by trips from Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, the latter of whom has gone the furthest right in support of the settlers. During his visit, he met with settlers and backed their stance that they have the right to build anywhere in “the place that god gave them.”
Danon has said he would head a parliamentary committee to investigate foreign funding of Israeli human rights and civil society groups that monitor the occupation and which, in his view, are harmful to Israel. It is a move some opponents have compared to McCarthyism. The committee, however, has not yet been formed because of a lack of parliamentary support.
Palin appeared to side with Danon. Like him, she has criticized the Obama administration for what she believes to be its unfair treatment of Israel. In a Facebook post last year she wrote: “As Israel makes concessions (and is still criticized by the Obama administration) Arab leaders are just sitting back waiting for the White House to pressure Israel. The Obama administration needs to open its eyes and recognize that it is only Iran and her terrorist allies that benefit from this manufactured Israeli controversy.”
While in India, Palin voiced concern about the possibility of Iran acquiring the capability to build nuclear weapons. “Ahmadinejad threatens our ally Israel and the United States. We've got to take these evil dictators seriously and make sure they don't get their hands on nuclear weapons,” she said.
As to how to do this, she said: “I am not taking military options off the table. I believe in peace through strength. Let some characters know we wouldn't hesitate to use our military might so as to contain their evil.”
Ricci, the Hebrew University academic, said the brief trip could draw some donations to her from conservative-minded American Jews for primary races.
“Her conservative stance on most issues will be of interest to a substantial part of the Jewish community. Don't count her out. She's very charismatic and tough,” he said.
But Steve Rabinowitz, who served in the White House Communications office during the Clinton administration and runs a Washington, D.C., public relations firm took a different view. The visit to Israel, he said, “is a net plus for her but she's got a long way to go to equal even other republican leaders foreign policy prowess.”
A visit to the Western Wall and other sites, ''does not a foreign policy maven make,'' he added.