“Christ” Visits Jerusalem

May 31, 2007

 The Jerusalem Post headline’s gaffe proclaiming ‘Christ visits Jerusalem’ spurred jokes among the Florida delegation. The picture shows Gov. Charlie Crist and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni

JERUSALEM — — The Jerusalem Post story was about Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, but the headline said: “Christ visits Jerusalem.”

State House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber, who is accompanying Crist on the “trade mission” to Israel this week, joked he had finally figured out the reason for Crist’s high approval ratings.

Eric Johnson, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, showed the photo and caption in Israel’s English-language daily newspaper to his boss as they walked with Crist through the historic Old City. “We just lost 20 points right there,” Johnson jested.

And Crist shrugged about the error, saying, “Yeah, well, what are you going to do?”

What Crist did Wednesday was what many American politicians with aspirations toward higher office do: divided his day between a high-security tourist visit to the Jewish holy sites and meet-and-greet sessions with high-level Israeli officials.

Crist heard from dovish candidate for president Shimon Peres and hawkish would-be prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Israel’s frustrations with continued unrest in Palestinian-held Gaza.

During a meeting with Israeli trade officials, Crist announced the forging of a “memorandum of understanding” that would commit Florida and Israel to each pay $2 million a year for five years to provide grants to companies hoping to increase trade between the two.

Crist said he hopes to sign the agreement in October and that Florida’s share of the money could come from the state’s $250 million Innovation Fund under his control.

And Crist made a pilgrimage to the Western Wall, the remnant of the ancient Jewish temple, and placed a handwritten prayer in a crevice between two limestone blocks.

“Please protect our Florida from storms and other difficulties. Amen,” Crist wrote on official governor’s office card stock.

“I thought asking for a calm hurricane season was a good idea,” he said.

Wexler, D-Delray Beach, also had a practical suggestion as they approached the wall, which is crammed with tiny chits of paper. “Just don’t take someone else’s out to stick yours in,” he said.

Crist said he was moved “beyond words” by the sights, which included the Mount of Olives, from which Jesus is said to have entered Jerusalem, and the Last Supper Room, on the site where that event is said to have occurred.

The tour guide for Crist’s group, which included Wexler, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and their top staff members, said the Last Supper probably did not take place in the room itself because it was “too new” — having been built by Christian Crusaders in the 12th century.

“When I say new here, I mean anything less than 1,000 years,” said the guide, Ross Culiner.

Crist also said he gained more of an appreciation for the complexities involved when three religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — all claim the same holy sites as their own.

When Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, asked Culiner whether it is true that the founder of Islam, the prophet Mohammed, never visited Jerusalem, Culiner said he does not answer such questions. “For the simple reason that we have a great deal of difficulty proving that Abraham was ever here,” he said.

But Florida’s self-styled “people’s governor” met almost none of the “real people” he revels in engaging in his home state. As he moved through the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, he was surrounded by a phalanx of Florida and Israeli security guards, including a quartet of border police toting M-4 automatic rifles.

Walking past a vehicle, particularly a vehicle containing large packages, brought anxious looks, and pedestrians not in Crist’s party were encouraged to move along.

The one chance Crist had to mingle came as his group passed a gaggle of tourists outside King David’s tomb, in one of the Old City’s famously narrow alleyways.

“Fort Walton Beach,” called out Denise Pressley, 48, who was leading a high school youth group from St. Peter Catholic Church.

Crist approached with arms extended. “Things going well? We’re about to cut your property taxes,” he said, drawing laughter.

Elsewhere, with Israeli leaders, Crist trumpeted a bill awaiting his signature that would force Florida’s $135 billion pension fund to dump stocks of companies that are involved in Iran’s petroleum sector or that deal with Sudan.

“We want to divest from terrorism, and we want to divest from genocide,” Netanyahu said at a meeting with Crist and his delegation in the Knesset building. “This could be a tremendous blow to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime. … You’re pulling a lever in Florida, and you have a result in Tehran. You don’t have a lot of levers like that.”

The meetings with government leaders were arranged by Wexler, who is Jewish and among the strongest supporters of Israel in Congress. So while Crist heard from Peres that Palestinians were given Gaza but had not given Israel peace, and from Netanyahu that he would attack Gaza’s infrastructure to punish Palestinians for continued rocket attacks, Florida’s governor heard no one present the Palestinian viewpoints that Israel has yet to dismantle most of its settlements in the West Bank or that it has destroyed much of Gaza’s infrastructure and its citrus orchards.

Crist, though, defended his schedule. “We have an obligation to listen to the leaders of Israel on an Israeli trade mission. I think taking that opportunity while we’re here is important for us,” he said.

Netanyahu, playing to Crist’s pro-Israel audience in the Florida delegation, compared fundamentalist Islamic leaders to Stalin and Hitler and said the United States also has to get tough with Saudi Arabia for fostering anti-Western violence in its religious schools.

After a half-hour, an aide reminded him that the purpose of Crist’s meeting was to enhance trade.

“OK. Invest in Israel,” he said, pumping his fist