Once upon a time, there were only two clear choices for an up-and-coming presidential hopeful like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who arrived in Israel on Sunday for a first-time extended visit of five days, just as election season began to heat up.
Option one: They could fly under the radar – no press entourage, no photo ops or interviews with the Jerusalem bureaus of The New York Times and The Washington Post or the Israeli press. In doing so, they would lose the chance to score points with pro-Israel Republican voters, and important pro-Israel donors.
Option two: Bring reporters along for the ride to document their pilgrimage to the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office – and take the accompanying risks. In the case of Walker, a governor who is trying to buff up his foreign policy credentials, the biggest danger is committing an embarrassing faux pas. Lack of international savvy is traditionally a weak spot for governors who aspire to the presidency. Announcing that Walker’s visit to Israel this week was an “educational trip” wasn’t exactly admitting ignorance, but it came close.
Certainly, the potential existed for missteps and it can be painful when they happen in front of a press corps itching to report them. It’s not like they haven’t happened to a Republican candidate weak on foreign policy experience in the recent past. In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney, already the Republican nominee and the recipient of strong support from GOP billionaire and kingmaker Sheldon Adelson hit several snags when he came to Israel for only a quick two-day visit in July. He received widespread negative publicity in the Israeli press for cancelling a meeting with Shelly Yacimovich, and was charged with making a racist slur against Palestinians by implying that Israel’s superior “culture” was responsible for Israel’s success.
The Walker team – probably wisely – fears the Middle Eastern minefield. Walker has already demonstrated some issues with the Hebrew language with his infamous wishing a supporter “Molotov” instead of “Mazel Tov” and taken flak for remarks that were interpreted as comparing union protesters to ISIS. Walker exercised similar caution in a February trip to London.
But thanks to the miracle of the Internet and social media – the Walker team appears to have perfected a formula in which they don’t have to choose – they can have their cake and eat it too, publicizing Walker’s visit to Israel, controlling the message and yet dispensing with all of that pesky scrutiny by reporters.
Here’s how it worked: The visit was billed as a five-day “listening tour” designed for Walker to “meet Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs and tour strategic and historic sites.” The trip is being co-sponsored by Walker’s fundraising organization My American Revival and the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is heavily supported by Adelson. Walker, who has not yet officially announced his candidacy, but is considered all-but-officially in the race, is playing catch-up with the two GOP declared candidates who have already been to Israel, senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. All three men are 40-something conservatives and evangelical Christians competing for the same slice of the Republican base.
Before setting out, Walker "it's an educational trip. It's not a photo op," adding "we're not bringing donors, we're really just bringing staff and people who work with us on national security and foreign policy issues."(According to the AP story on the trip, it was originally planned to be a taxpayer-funded trade mission, but the financing changed hands after determining that his work would be primarily political.) A member of Walker’s entourage to whom I reached out while the trip was underway stayed firmly on message and told me “we aren't doing any press while we are here in Israel. The governor is here to listen and absorb, not do press.”
There may be no press per se, but there has been plenty of social media exposure which, in turn has been dutifully reported by the press. While there have only been selected tweets from Walker’s personal Twitter account, the trip has been faithfully documented by Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, one of Walker’s tour guides who has been tweeting profusely and allowing the press free use of his photographs.
Thanks to the Brooks missives, we know that Walker had an “awesome meeting” with “a true hero, Natan Sharansky, discussing democracy and freedom” and “a very important briefing” on “the challenges related to Syria etc. on the Golan Heights.”
He also viewed Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the Chagall tapestries at the Knesset, laid a wreath on a Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem as well as hitting the usual pilgrimage hotspots - the Western Wall, Mount of Olives, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Via Dolorosa.
Walker himself tweeted a photo of himself at the Wall wearing a kippah during a guided tour.
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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker receives a tour of the Western Wall. Photo by Matt Brooks.
Through Walker’s Twitter feed, we could catch the highlights of his Israel 101 course:
He had a “thorough discussion” with U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro “regarding Israel's security and the state of U.S. relations.”
He enjoyed a “great discussion” with opposition leader Isaac Herzog and discovered that Herzog “has family ties to U.S. presidents going back to FDR.”
In a meeting with former Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, Walker found that “Israel's economy and entrepreneurship are sources of strength and optimism.”
And finally, in the inevitable crowning glory of the visit, came the tweeted photo of his handshake with Netanyahu, thanking him for a meeting and stating that “our democracies share common values & work to confront shared threats .”
In short, for a trip that was billed as “not a photo op” there were a lot of them. It’s a technique that owes a debt to the Kardashian family - a political foreign policy version of what happens when celebrities dodge the paparazzi but then extensively tweet photos of themselves.
A headline on the Politico website asked “Scott Walker in Israel: Listening or Hiding?” The piece quoted one member of the group with Walker who was willing to talk - RJC board member Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to George W. Bush. Fleischer defended the Walker stealth visit strategy, saying that althoguh “it’s important for presidents and nominees to conduct frequent and open press events while abroad” for “a possible candidate like Governor Walker, especially this early in the process, it’s more important to focus on policy briefings and backgrounders than the public aspects of a foreign visit. It shows a seriousness of purpose and I think that’s appropriate.”
We can assume that once the Walker team is on the plane back home, all the photo and video moments collected on his Israel trip will be carefully curated for display to pro-Israel Republican supporters who want to see evidence of a GOP candidate’s emotional and spiritual connection to Israel. The photos will illustrate declarations that Walker has made, like “We need a commander in chief who will once and for all call it what it is, and that is that radical Islamic terrorism is a threat to us all. We need a president who will affirm that Israel is our ally, and start acting like it.”
And by the time he talks about the Middle East and Israel in Iowa and New Hampshire with the press and with the mega-donors whose support he is competing for, his talking points on policy will be polished and practiced. Only then will we know whether he passed his “educational tour” with flying colors.