JERUSALEM — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie displayed his support for Israel on a visit to the Jewish state this week that was intended in part to buff his foreign policy credentials as a future presidential candidate.
Recognizing Christie's standing in the Republican Party, President Shimon Peres met with him at length April 2 and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a closed-door working meeting and a friendly dinner with Christie the same day.
Christie told Peres that it was an honor to meet him and that Peres's leadership was “an inspiration to so many people in the U.S.”
Peres called Christie “a friend of Israel” and thanked him for bringing with him a delegation of some 15 state Jewish and business leaders. He expressed his affection for New Jersey, even as he poked fun at the state.
“For us New Jersey is like New York without the same fanfare but with the same connections for Israelis and the Jewish people,” Peres said. “I will never forget one year when our finance minister was told on April 1 that he needed a visa to go from New York to New Jersey.”
Netanyahu also joked about New Jersey, saying that Israel was the same size and had roughly the same population but that “your voters have better neighbors.”
The talks with Netanyahu and Peres focused on economic issues as well as the changes taking place in the Middle East.
Christie's visit was described by his office as part of his administration’s broader initiative to strengthen New Jersey’s economic and diplomatic relationships with foreign nations.
The visit was the fulfillment of a promise he made to Jewish leaders in a meeting in Whippany several months ago to make Israel the first foreign country he visited as governor. Christie brought along his family, visiting tourist sites like Jerusalem's Old City, the Western Wall, and the Galilee.
Expenses for the trip are being covered by the Republican Jewish Coalition and Choose New Jersey, a nonprofit formed by business executives in 2010. The group, founded with Christie's blessing, describes its mission as “lowering taxes, reducing government regulation and spending, and creating a better location for business today and in the future.”
Christie noticeably did not schedule meetings with Palestinian officials on his trip. He did go from Israel to Jordan, where he was set to meet with King Abdullah, whom he called “a force for good in this region.”
Although billed as a trade mission, Christie’s trip inevitably raised questions about his political ambitions, as well as his foreign policy views.
In an interview with NJJN, Christie was asked what advice he would give Israel's leaders concerning peacemaking and averting war with Iran.
Christie responded that there were others who knew more than he but that America's leaders should be handling Israel differently.
“It's very important for you to know what you don't know,” Christie said. “I am not going to stand here and pretend I have answers to questions that people with more experience than me don't know.
“But there are general principles that our country stands for,” he said. “Our country was founded on pluralism, liberty, and freedom, and we should be standing with those in the world who stand for those principles.”
Without mentioning President Obama by name, Christie criticized the administration in Washington for not doing enough to support Israel and for sending mixed messages about its loyalty to the Jewish state.
“There should be unambiguous policies standing for Israel,” Christie said. “The problems Israel is facing cannot be solved without unambiguous American commitment to Israeli security and prosperity. Our partnership with Israel is not based on generosity but because they have earned our support. Rather than use cute words and phrases, our commitment to Israel should be unambiguous and easily understood. If the world shows that solidarity, peace will be easier to achieve, not harder.”
Asked about his future national political ambitions, Christie sought to clarify a statement he made to Oprah Winfrey in January that suggested he would be prepared to run for president in four years. He said his remarks were taken out of context.
“I said I hoped we will be re-electing President Romney in 2016,” he explained. “But I said that of course I would be better prepared to run in 2016 after doing this job for a while. It would be helpful if you could put that out there.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council took note of Christie’s trip and endeavored to score points with an April 2 news release suggesting that his 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.” The news release noted that Christie had referred to Sen. Frank Lautenberg as “a partisan hack” and that he had urged the media to “take the bat” to NJ Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.
Among those accompanying Christie on the trip were Jacob Toporek, executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations; Max Kleinman, executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ; and Mark Levenson, chair of the New Jersey-Israel Commission.
The group also included Josh Pruzansky, NJ regional director for public policy at the Orthodox Union; Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, executive director of Chabad at Rutgers University; Rabbi Aharon Kotler, executive director of the Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva in Lakewood; and State Sen. Robert Singer (R-Dist. 30).
Kleinman said he was delighted that the governor kept his promise to come to Israel. The trip included a visit to generic drug giant Teva Pharmaceuticals in Petach Tikva and the Tel Aviv offices of A Better Place, a global leader in infrastructure for electric vehicles.
“Clearly the world is becoming smaller and for states to thrive they need to have an international perspective,” Kleinman said. “Promoting international relations is beneficial for the state of New Jersey. We are global as well as local.”
Levenson said New Jersey could cooperate with Israeli companies in science, high-tech, clean-tech, defense, and pharmaceuticals. But Levenson acknowledged that business was “not the prime motivation” for Christie's visit.
“The governor is a courageous person,” Levenson said. “He knows the turmoil that Israel endures and that Israel and the U.S. have shared values. He wanted to make a statement that this would be his first overseas trip as governor, and he kept his word.”
Carlebach said he was impressed by the enthusiasm for Israel and Judaism that Christie displayed throughout the trip.
“His words don't matter; his feelings matter,” Carlebach said. “What matters is that he came. He went to the Kotel. He met with the president of Israel. We have accomplished enough already. There are words that have to be left unsaid, but Israel recognizes that he is not just a governor, that the future is here.”
Displaying those emotions, Christies said he insisted on visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where, he said, he uttered a personal prayer. He said he was proud that New Jersey was the first state that mandated Holocaust education in its schools.
“Yad Vashem is an overwhelming reminder for me of how much work we have to do as human beings in terms of the way we treat each other,” Christie told NJJN. “It's extraordinary that there is a place like that to remind people and also give them hope.”