Bethlehem a step too far for Palin's Israel visit

Sarah Palin, the US former vice presidential candidate, yesterday appeared to make an aborted trip to Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, when her vehicle approached an Israeli checkpoint before turning back.

Mrs Palin was visiting Israel on her way back from India as she attempts to bolster her thin foreign policy experience amid speculation that she could run for the American presidency in 2012. But the private three-day visit, deliberately conducted out of the media glare, was briefly the subject of intrigue when a car carrying Mrs Palin, her husband Todd and Israeli guides, stopped at an Israeli checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank town before turning round.

Photographers at the scene said that no one got out of the car before it headed back in the direction of Jerusalem, a 20-minute drive away, via a nearby monastery.

It remains unclear why they drove away, or indeed whether Mrs Palin had actually intended to visit Bethlehem, which is under Palestinian control. Israelis need permission to enter Palestinian territory. The Israeli military authority that coordinates West Bank access for foreign dignitaries said that it had received no request from Mrs Palin's team about a visit to Bethlehem.

Mrs Palin's trip to Israel, a popular stop for 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls, comes as she hits back at criticism of her meagre foreign experience. The former Alaska governor, who only obtained a passport in 2006, has been widely ridiculed for gaps in her knowledge: she confused the two Koreas and famously asserted that Alaska's proximity to Russia gave her foreign affairs experience.

She has so far been cautious regarding her presidential aspirations, saying during the India leg that she would not rush into a "life-changing" decision. Republican Tim Pawlenty was expected to announce the first step towards launching a presidential bid last night, a move that is likely to spur other Republican hopefuls into declaring themselves.

Mrs Palin was photographed wearing a Star of David necklace, the Jewish symbol, during a visit to the Wailing Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism. She was also scheduled to dine last night with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose more hawkish views she supports.

As a staunch backer of Israel, Mrs Palin is warmly welcomed by Israel's right, but she will also hope the visit will play well at home with Jewish and Christian evangelical voters, while raising her flagging domestic profile.

Her trip to Israel was at the invitation of Danny Danon, a controversial Israeli politician who is one of the most outspoken supporters of expanding the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. The settlements are considered illegal under international law.

Mrs Palin has also spoken out in favour of Jewish settlements, saying in an ABC interview last year that settlements should be expanded because "more and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead".

By contrast, Israel's relationship with President Barack Obama's administration has been particularly fraught, mainly over US efforts to persuade Israel to freeze construction in the settlements as a confidence-building gesture to the Palestinians, who want the West Bank as the basis for a future state.

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