With the race for California’s Senate seat dead even, Carly Fiorina did something peculiar over the Labor Day weekend. She shut down her campaign and schlepped to Israel to celebrate her 56th birthday with her husband, Frank.
For the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, what happens in the Holy Land, apparently stays in the Holy Land. Fiorina had told an Israeli business magazine that she wanted to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But there hasn’t been a peep out of the Israeli press about any meeting between Fiorina and top officials in Israel.
Nor is Fioriana’s campaign saying bupkis about the getaway. A campaign spokeswoman says, “This was a personal trip for Carly, so it had nothing to do with the campaign.”
Over at the Republican Jewish Coalition, which was approached by Fiorina to arrange and fund the trip, they didn’t see anything campaign-like in the visit.
“This was not a political trip,” says Matthew Brooks, the coalition’s executive director.
But by making the pilgrimage to Israel, Fiorina was also making a political calculation. She joined a formidable club of American electoral aspirants who have jetted to Jerusalem as part of their political education. Israel has become the preferred one-stop shop for candidates seeking to flesh out their foreign policy credentials in a hurry--much to the amusement of Jerusalem's political establishment, and the domestic opponents these rookie world travelers run against.
In 1998, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush traded in his cowboy hat for a yarmulke when he visited Israel during his presidential campaign. “I went overseas for a couple of reasons… to enjoy myself, to get out of Texas, have a chance to relax,” Bush said. Upon his return to the Lone Star State, he wrote in his governor’s diary, “I’m really glad to be home. There’s nothing like sleeping in your own sack!”
There were more serious things on Bush’s mind than his bed at home, according to Brooks, whose group arranged Bush’s trip as well. Brooks says that one of the future president’s first briefings on radical Islam happened in Israel.
Fiorina was making a political calculation. She joined a formidable club of American electoral aspirants who have jetted off to Jerusalem as part of their political education.
Similarly in 2008, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama snarled Jerusalem traffic with his outsized media entourage, and most memorably, had his private prayer at the Western Wall printed for the world to see. And although best remembered for his itinerary involving China, Richard Nixon was also the first sitting U.S. president to say shalom to Israel. Since Nixon’s day, the Western Wall photo op has become as much a required campaign ritual as the Iowa steak fry or New Hampshire pancake flip.
For Fiorina, a foreign-policy neophyte, the trip to Israel makes sense for a few reasons. A new stamp on the passport could provide a modicum of credibility in her fight against Barbara Boxer, a senior member of the Committee on Foreign Relations who was elected to the Senate in 1992. And of course, visiting the Old City and Masada is intended to garner support of one voting bloc in particular. In the identity-politics battle for Jewish voters, Fiorina has an uphill fight. Boxer is Jewish; Fiorina is not. (And four out of five Jews voted for Obama in 2008.) While some may see a cynical feint—float in the Dead Sea and watch the Jewish vote pour in!—others see smart retail politics.
“Politicians routinely court their constituents, Irish, farmers, union members, Jews,” says Harvard professor Ruth Wisse, author of Jews and Power. “One would hope that American Jews are passionate enough about Israel to care about their representatives' views on this issue. So on one level the obligatory trip to Israel is just basic democratic politics.”
Gary Bauer, the former Republican presidential candidate and Christian evangelical leader, who has visited Israel four times and counts the Old City in Jerusalem as his favorite destination, agrees.
“From a purely political standpoint, going to Israel… resonates in the United States with both Jews and Christians,” Bauer says.
For critics on the left, Fiorina’s Israeli stopover is a serious campaign misstep, particularly as the California’s economy is experiencing major pain.
“If a candidate wants to take a personal trip somewhere two months before an election, it does not reflect well on them to do it 16 hours away when their voters are hurting at home,” says Democratic strategist Jim Gerstein. “She sends the exactly wrong message. You can say it was a personal trip because there really is no political benefit for it. It really reflects a misunderstanding of how to connect with your voters.”
In the end, political payout may be nil—perhaps, this is why the Fiorina campaign insists that Fiorina’s trip had nothing to do with the campaign. For one thing, even most American Jews, who make up 3 to 4 percent of California voters, aren’t drawn to the polls by allegiances to Israel. According to Gerstein, only 10 percent of American Jews cite Israel as one of the top two issues that they vote on.
Israelis, meanwhile, are used to their country looming large on the world stage. How do they feel that they frequently find themselves playing host to congressional delegations or serving as a playground for political hopefuls from the U.S.? It seems it suits them fine.
“Most Israelis love outsiders’ attention, and American political hopefuls are no exception,” Aluf Benn, editor-at-large for Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, writes in an email. The “constant attention we get from American pols leads many Israelis—who are self-centered in their world view anyhow—to believe that we’re the most important issue in U.S. politics.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.