JERUSALEM – Sarah Palin stayed out of sight Monday during her first trip to Israel, dodging paparazzi staking out hotels and holy sites in hopes of getting a glimpse of the former Alaska governor who might run for president.
A visit to Israel, a key U.S. ally, has become almost a rite of passage for potential Republican candidates at a time of strained relations between the U.S. and Israeli governments. Israel is a key American ally in a volatile region and a top concern for Jewish voters and pro-Israel Christian groups in the U.S.
Palin's two-day private visit follows similar stops by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, all potential candidates for president in 2012.
For Palin, the visit is of particular importance. As McCain's running mate in 2008, she was criticized for lacking experience in foreign policy.
Palin, accompanied by her husband, Todd, visited the Western Wall and other religious sites in Jerusalem's Old City and elsewhere. She had a dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned later Monday and was to depart Tuesday.
During Sunday's visit to the Western Wall — a retaining wall of the compound where the biblical Jewish Temples stood 2,000 years ago — she wore a Star of David necklace.
"Israel is absolutely beautiful, and it is overwhelming to see and touch the cornerstone of our faith, and I am so grateful to get to be here," Palin told reporters, referring to the part the Temple played in the life of Jesus.
"I'm very thankful to know that the Israeli and American link will grow in strength as we seek peace along with you," she said.
For the most part, however, Palin evaded the waiting press hordes, changing her schedule at the last minute, leaving sites before reporters could catch up with her. While most politicians seek out coverage, Palin is derisive of the media and avoids contact when possible.
Benyamin Korn, director of Jewish Americans for Palin, a grass roots organization advocating for Palin in the Jewish community, said she would not be making any further public statements during her stay. He said she is planning a more substantial visit in the coming months.
Danny Danon, a lawmaker in Netanyahu's Likud Party, accompanied Palin in the Old City and said he found a very down to earth woman with a deep love for Israel. He said she told him she keeps flags of Israel in her office and home.
Netanyahu has had a rocky relationship with Obama over Israel's settlement building in the West Bank and the lack of progress in peacemaking. Danon said the Republican candidates' embrace of Israel offers an alternative to Obama's combative approach.
David Ricci, an expert in U.S.-Israel relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the steady stream of Republican visitors sends a message to Obama that Israel is of interest to the other party "and he shouldn't push them around too much."
"They are coming here so they can tell potential supporters that they have been here firsthand and have talked to leaders and have a deep understanding of what is going on," he said.
On the significance of the trip to Palin's presidential possibilities, he said, "It is an indication that she is keeping her options open."