JERUSALEM -- In the wake of the evangelical Saddleback presidential faith forum and just as the veepstakes heat up for the Republican campaign, 2008 presidential candidate ex-Arkansas governor and Baptist minister with a grin Mike Huckabee turned up for his tenth trip to the Holy Land. The timely invitation came from the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, a rightwing New York foundation that urges Jews to settle in the Muslim quarter of the Old City in "undivided Jerusalem." Huckabee's visit here lasted 48 hours, 25 percent longer than Barack Obama's whirlwind trip last month. Huckabee used the extra time to visit Jewish settlements near the controversial security barrier.
Fresh faced at a power breakfast, despite having had only his usual four hours sleep in a suite at the King David hotel, Huckabee chose to ignore the local English language paper, which had hailed the politician as "Huckabee the Maccabee." This is an Israeli compliment, as the Maccabees were an ancient Jewish national liberation movement that founded a kingdom that held fast for a century, from 164 - 63 BC.
Mike Huckabee took time to stress Israel's right to defend itself against a potential strike by Iran, then championed the evangelical vision of a greater Israel with his observation that the "State of Israel, from the standpoint of security, should include West Bank." He added: "to tell Jewish people they can't live in a Jewish state is like telling the Boston Red Sox that they can't play in Fenway Park." This odd remark might be considered too 'inside baseball' for many Jerusalemites, and Huckabee assured the press that "my position on Jerusalem does not stem from religious beliefs but is based on common sense. It's unrealistic to have two governments on the same street." As the capital of both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Jerusalem is considered an international city. "But you need a single government to protect it." Huckabee said. "You can't have multiple jurisdictions on top of each other. "
Huckabee urges America to relocate its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to acknowledge the nation's true capital, and believes that McCain will change the Jerusalem consulate to an embassy if elected. (In 1980, most countries shifted their envoys from Jerusalem under the perceived threat of an Arab oil embargo.) James Cunningham, the United States' new lame duck ambassador to Israel, arrived only this week to assume his duties in Tel Aviv. If Huckabee is bucking for an ambassadorship under a newly elected president, he's way too outspoken.
"It's impractical and irrational to have two governments overseeing the same real estate, and with Hamas terrorists, it complicates it even more," Huckabee remarked. When asked whether Arab citizens should have equal rights and votes in a Greater Israel, the former governor hedged, fell back on the obvious and wondered into odd territory. "It's a delicate issue, and we shouldn't forget that it took women and African Americans 150 years to get the vote [in the USA]." Straight from the mouth of a Dixie State-Rights Republican who doesn't remember that Israeli woman have had the right to vote from the inception of the nation. Whatever the status of Jerusalem, suffrage shouldn't suffer.
Huckabee's cringe-making cell phone schtick resurfaced at breakfast with five journalists. When his phone trilled, he quipped "That's McCain wanting to put me on the ticket!" But he took pains to clarify that there is "No indication that I'm on the list. I'd be very surprised if I were picked." It was a tad more tasteful than his joke at the National Rifle Association when noises offstage prompted him to crack: "That was Barack Obama, he just tripped off a chair and someone pointed a gun at him and he dove for the floor." The good ol boys in Kentucky were not amused.
While Dr Joseph Frager, of the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, has noted that "most Jews vote Democrat anyway," he was enthusiastic when Huckabee tipped John McCain as the "overwhelmingly better choice" for Israeli security in the United States' November presidential elections.
"John McCain understands this part of the world very clearly," Huckabee said, adding that candidate Obama doesn't "fully grasp" the politics of the region. A Democratic New York Congressman, Dov Hikind, who joined Huckabee on his tour of Israel, called the Republican a "real hero in the Jewish community."
An excursion by chopper to the rocket-riddled Negev town of Sderot was part of Huckabee's planned itinerary, as it is for nearly every American politician who has ventured to Israel since Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip were sent packing in 2005. (Both Barack Obama and John McCain visited earlier this year; a planned visit by Oprah following the Lebanon War in 2006 was canceled at the eleventh hour.)
Odds were against Huckabee experiencing a full-on " Red Dawn," the 15-second warning to dodge incoming Qassam rocket fire, because a lull in fighting was brokered between Hamas and Israeli leaders earlier this summer. Islamic Jihad still occasionally launches a homemade missile over the fence -- one slammed into empty fields on Monday -- so these visits are not for the faint of heart. Some 13 Israeli civilians have been killed by rockets in the Negev since 2000, and over one third of the school children in Sderot suffer from post-traumatic stress. In the adjacent Gaza Strip, everyday trauma has also become a way of life.