Retired neurosurgeon and aspiring US politician Ben Carson could walk down the streets of Jerusalem, shout at the top of his lungs “I am Ben Carson,” and almost no one would know who he is.
At least not yet.
But that could change very quickly as the 2016 US presidential campaign picks up speed, and Carson gains traction.
And if recent polls are any indication, the 63-yearold Detroit native – who rose from a tough inner-city childhood to become director of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins and the first doctor to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head – is already starting to pick up traction.
A Public Policy Polling survey this week in North Carolina found that GOP voters in that state ranked Carson – yes, Carson – as their top pick among nine potential GOP candidates.
According to the poll reported in North Carolina’s News & Observer, Carson – a devout Christian who became a darling of the conservatives in 2013 when he confronted US President Barack Obama in a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast – polled at 19 percent, which put him ahead of some of the names Israelis are familiar with: Jeb Bush (15%), Chris Christie (14%) and Mike Huckabee (also at 14%).
According to the report, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio all trailed well behind.
And in a theoretical Ben Carson vs. Hillary Clinton presidential race, right now in North Carolina the two are tied at 44%.
Lest one think this is a polling anomaly or aberration, consider the following: A CNN/ORC International Poll at the beginning of the month put Carson second only to Mitt Romney among favorite candidates for the GOP nomination.
And according to a Bloomberg report, fund-raising on his behalf has been robust. A draft-Carson committee has raised $11 million since August 2013. By comparison, Ready for Hillary, a group promoting a possible Hillary Clinton campaign, has raised $10m. since January 2013.
While a long-shot candidate, the soft-spoken Carson, a former contributor on Fox News, is most definitely in the GOP presidential sweepstakes.
It was somewhat unusual, therefore, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is very tuned-in to US political developments and meets nearly all visiting Congressmen, did not meet Carson during his six-day visit this week. One official in Netanyahu’s office said this was due to scheduling issues – Netanyahu was out of the country for a day, earlier this week.
Carson did meet Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, visit an army base, and take a six-hour helicopter tour of the country with former deputy chief of staff and National Security Council head Uzi Dayan.
He also sat down for an hour with The Jerusalem Post and said it was “fine” for people to interpret his first ever visit to Israel as being connected to his presidential ambitions.
“It is always good to get a firsthand look at important issues,” he said of his visit.
“What is going on in the Middle East has a profound effect not only on the US but on the whole world at this stage, and the more clarity one could get on that, the better off one will be, particularly if one is considering national office.
And I am considering national office.”
Asked about the Obama administration’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the bids at the United Nations to move a resolution through the Security Council, Carson – who keeps his answers short – said, “I know that Egypt in the past has made some overtures in terms of providing a place for the Palestinians. That seems to me something worth exploring.”
As to whether he views an Egyptian option as a substitute for a Palestinian state on the West Bank, Carson said that “when you are looking at Judea and Samaria and look at their proximity to the population centers of Israel, and you recognize the hostility that existed before, I’m not sure that makes a lot of sense.”
He clarified that he was not opposed to a two-state solution, “but would not be in favor of a two-state solution that would put Israel’s population at risk.”
Carson also said that the settlement issue has been “blown out of proportion.”
“Having been here, and having seen the housing going up, it certainly seems much more benign than what you hear about in the international press,” he said.
“People need housing, and they are putting it in the proximity of where they live.
It has been made into a political issue.“ Asked what would change in the US -Israel relations if he did ever come to power, he replied that he “would want it to be very clear that people who are allies are allies. They are our friends, they are not people who should ever be questioning our relationship and our loyalty.”
Carson said that the US has a responsibility to lead in the region and the world, not to “simply sit back and react to events as they occur, because that basically creates a vacuum, and historically vacuums are always filled by someone.
The likelihood that in this case it will be filled by someone more benign than the United States seems relatively small.“ Asked about Obama’s policy regarding Islamic State, Carson said it was a group that wanted to destroy both America and Israel, and should be uprooted.
“It is fairly difficult to come to an area of compromise with someone whose goal is to destroy you,” he said, echoing – perhaps unwittingly – Israel’s long-standing policy toward Hamas. “You can negotiate – do you destroy me today or tomorrow, half of me today, half tomorrow – but these are not good negotiations.
So my philosophy is that you have to uproot something like that while it is young and small, and you don’t wait until it becomes a gigantic tree with extensive branches everywhere.”
Turning to US issues, Carson was reserved about Obama’s surprise decision on Wednesday to reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba after more than 50 years.
“I would just ask some questions,” he said. “What is in it for the United States? Maybe there are some answers there that we haven’t heard yet.
What is the benefit for the US? How does it affect our relationship with Russia, with whom Cuba has a close relationship? What is it doing to enhance the freedom of the Cuban people?” As to racial tensions in the US stemming from the recent incidents where blacks were killed by policemen in Ferguson and New York, Carson said there is “frustration” and “some level of injustice,” just as there has been in the past and will be in the future.
But, he added, “one can focus all one’s attention on those things, or one could look at the incredible opportunities that exist and decide where one wants to place the energy. There are some people who are extremely skillful at manipulating emotions, who will come in and blow up the significance of any degree of injustice, make it appear as if it is the most important thing that has ever occurred in one’s life.”
He said that in order to improve the situation between the police and minority communities in the US, the police have to be willing to say that they could do some things better, and minority communities have to “be willing to say that people who are thugs are thugs, and don’t try to make them into heroes.”
Asked to respond to critics who say he has neither the diplomatic or political experience to lead the US in a tumultuous world, he said that having had leaders in office with great experience and expertise has “not particularly resolved much in the way of problems.”
While clarifying that he was not negating the importance of either experience or expertise, he added, “What is most important is common sense and wisdom and the ability to use these resources in a positive way.”Carson and his delegation are visiting under the auspices of The Face of Israel, a private organization that promotes Israel internationally amongst influential decision-makers and opinion leaders from societies, countries and religious communities around the world.
The Face of Israel introduces global leaders to Israel's unique history, diverse culture and innovative society in order to strengthen relationships and understanding worldwide with Israel and its people. Led by CEO Ariel Bulstein, The Face of Israel was created as a coordinated platform for cooperation amongst pro-Israel organizations, and provides in-depth research and analysis of threats to Israel’s international legitimacy.