The Israeli-US relationship is crucial and must remain above the US political fray, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) said at the outset of his meeting Wednesday with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Rubio, a first-term senator who is a rising star in the Republican party and a man mentioned as a likely Republican presidential candidate in 2016, said that the "Israeli-American relationship is one of the most important ones we have, and certainly our commitment to that partnership is bipartisan and it should remain that way." Rubio, who presented the Republican rebuttal to US President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech last week, said that keeping the US-Israel relationship bipartisan is "why I'm pleased the President is coming here in March."
The senator's rebuttal to Obama's speech will probably be remembered more for an awkward chug of bottled water he took on camera, than for its content. In a good-spirited, self-deprecating allusion to that water moment for which he was roughly criticized, he clanged water bottles with Netanyahu at the outset of their meeting.
Netanyahu greeted the Florida senator, the son of Cuban immigrants and a politician considered a staunch supporter of Israel, by expressing appreciation for his backing.
"I appreciate your support. I appreciate the tremendous support of the American people, bipartisan support for our security and our quest for peace. It's a daunting task, both security and the quest for peace, but we know we have your support and we appreciate it," Netanyahu said.
Neither Netanyahu's office, nor Rubio's staff, gave any details about the hour-long meeting, beyond saying it dealt with the wide range of regional issues, from Iran to Syria, the Palestinians and Egypt.
This is the second visit to Israel for Rubio, who arrived here on Tuesday from Jordan. He first visited soon after his election victory to the senate in 2010.
Rubio's visit follows by just over a month the visit here of another possible 2016 Republican presidential contender: Rand Paul. But while Paul met with the press and held an open lecture, Rubio's visit has been low-profile. One explanation for the differences is that while the Kentuckian Paul needed to establish his credentials with the Jewish community, which generally holds a skeptical view of him, Rubio from Florida is a known quantity among the Jews there and has strong pro-Israel credentials.
In addition to meeting Netanyahu, Rubio also met President Shimon Peres who said that while he, as a man of nearly 90 years, represented the past, Rubio "represent(s) the future." Peres was unaware of Rubio's exact age, until the Senator told him: "I'm 41, but I feel 42." "This is the city which is the spiritual capital of the world," he told Peres. On his previous visit, he added, he had not only fallen in love with Jerusalem, but with the whole country.
"At a time when few things unite Democrats and Republicans in Washington, I'm pleased that Israel is one of them," he said.
'The people of Israel have a right to be safe," Rubio said, pledging that Americans would continue to do everything possible to advance that aim. "Israel represents everything the US stands for," he said, citing the country's vibrant democracy, vibrant economy, free markets and free enterprise, which he declared are "an example to the world".
Any visit to Israel brings one back to their spiritual roots, he said, adding that he intended to visit often, and hoped to come back again in two years time with his wife and their four children.
In reviewing the overall situation in the region, Peres spoke of the need to change the Middle East, and proposed that global companies play a role in creating jobs that would relieve unemployment and poverty, something that will ultimately reduce tensions. Projects on a company to company basis without the bureaucracy of government to government will be effective not only in the creation of good products, but also in the promotion of goodwill, said Peres, who attributed the root of the problems in the Middle East to the super powers. "The Middle East is a victim of the mistakes of the super powers," he said.
Peres, as he does when meeting all American dignitaries, emphasized the need to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians, something he said was imperative for both sides in the conflict.
Meanwhile, outside Beit Hanasi a larger than usual demonstration was held on behalf of Jonathan Pollard, with protestors holding placards and banners chanting loudly in both Hebrew and English for his release.