Sen. Rand Paul to fuel presidential speculation by meeting with Israeli leaders

Most senators trigger speculation about a possible presidential campaign by scheduling visits to Iowa or New Hampshire. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul is attracting questions about his 2016 intentions by traveling to Israel this week.

Paul is scheduled to meet Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, the Jerusalem Post reported Thursday. The meetings coincide with the senator’s 50th birthday.

Paul is also expected to travel to Jordan on Tuesday to meet with King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. While in his Israel, he will address the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies on fiscal policy and foreign aid. (RELATED: Rand Paul “interested” in 2016 presidential run)

The trip comes as GOP Senate leaders have assigned Paul to serve on the Foreign Relations Committee. While the tea party senator is best known for his strong fiscal conservatism and a desire for cuts in the federal budget, he has occasionally bucked the GOP line on foreign policy.

“I want to know more about the issues… [and] try to figure out why we don’t seem to be able to achieve peace over there,” he has told reporters. “If you want to be part of the national debate and hopefully part of the solution someday to what happens in the Middle East, having been there gives you more credibility with some folks.”

But domestic politics also plays a role. Paul is visiting Israel with the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group. He was invited by evangelical activist David Lane.

“Among the attendees will be some important evangelical figures from some key early primary states,” the Christian Broadcasting Network reported in November.

“Tamara Scott, the Iowa Chairwoman for Concerned Women for America will attend. Pastor Brad Sherman, who headed up the Iowa pastors for Huckabee effort in 2008, will be present along with Chad Connelly, the Chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party,” CBN added.

Paul may be trying to deepen his inroads with evangelicals while smoothing over concerns about his policy positions on Israel. The National Jewish Democratic Council slammed Paul’s appointment to the Foreign Relations Committee as “raising red flags and provoking severe concern across the pro-Israel community.”

The perception that former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel is hostile to Israel has hurt his potential secretary of defense nomination among fellow Republicans. Israel was also a sticking point for Senator Paul’s father, the former Texas congressman and three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul, with evangelical voters.

The elder Paul finished a distant second among evangelical Christian voters while registering a strong third place showing in the 2012 Iowa caucuses, but his performance among this bloc dipped in subsequent states. His peak in a major contested primary was a second-place New Hampshire finish behind the eventual GOP nominee, Mitt Romney.