New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie kicked off his first official overseas trip to the Middle East on Monday, meeting Israeli leaders in a visit that may boost the rising Republican star’s foreign policy credentials ahead of November’s presidential elections.
“New Jersey and Israel are very similar: our area is about the same, and also our number of inhabitants,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in his meeting with Christie, “but the residents of New Jersey have better neighbors.”
Netanyahu added, “There are other things we have in common, and I expect us to talk about the strengthening of our cooperation during our talk.”
Christie said that he had no doubt that his first visit abroad as governor should be to Israel. “I’m happy to be here,” he said.
Christie, 49, is often touted as a potential vice presidential candidate in 2012 polls, and a possible presidential candidate in 2016. He has brushed aside repeated inquiries from top Republican donors to enter this year’s presidential contest.
Christie’s Israel visit could raise speculation that he is positioning himself for a future run and his trip will be watched by Democrats and Republicans alike. A three-state tour of Missouri, California and Louisiana in September also fueled talk over Christie’s future plans.
Israel is a popular stop for American politicians on the rise seeking to bolster their international credibility while also appealing to Jewish constituents.
However, a group of Jewish Democrats slammed Christie, for allegedly having insulted Jewish policitians in New Jersey.
“Political and policy differences are understandable and to be expected, but the vitriol and the mean-spirited nature of the rhetoric you’ve aimed at too many in your state — including your most senior Jewish elected leaders — is simply unacceptable,” said David A. Harris, the head of the National Jewish Democratic Council in a statement on Monday. “Your time in Israel would be the perfect occasion to apologize to these senior Jewish elected leaders for the tremendously inappropriate things you’ve said to them.”
Harris said Christie had called New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg “a partisan hack” and implied he should not seek reelection due to his age. “Just one year ago,” Harris added, addressing Christie directly, “you went after New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg using even more inappropriate terms — indecently suggesting that the press ‘take the bat’ to her, completely disregarding the violence of the remark.”
Christie endorsed Mitt Romney’s bid for president in October, ending months of speculation over whether he would run. He hasn’t said yet whether he’ll seek re-election as governor next year, leaving the door open to a vice presidential bid. He is consistently rumored to be on Romney’s short list.
Christie’s trip, billed “Jersey to Jerusalem,” is a trade and diplomacy mission, according to his office. His meeting with Netanyahu was the first in a series of meetings with senior Israeli business and political leaders, including President Shimon Peres on Tuesday.
Christie will move on to Jordan later this week for a personal visit with Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Christie’s spokeswoman Maria Comella said it is “a common tradition for New Jersey governors to go to Israel” because of the state’s economic links to Israel. Beyond that, she pointed to New Jersey’s cultural ties with Israel due to the state’s large Jewish population.
Christie is traveling with his family and a delegation of 13 business and religious leaders. While in Israel, he plans to tour a pharmaceutical facility with an interest in expanding to the US, participate in a business roundtable and visit a school.