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Ahead of Obama visit, Marco Rubio heads to Israel

As President Obama prepares for his first trip to Israel since assuming office, the man some hope will succeed him leaves Saturday for his own visit to the Jewish state.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an oft-mentioned potential 2016 presidential candidate, departed for Israel and Jordan.

In a press release announcing his visit, Rubio said, "America's friendship with Israel is a truly special one, and we must continue to do all we can to support this beacon of democracy, religious freedom and free enterprise in the heart of an unstable region."

A trip to Israel has become an almost-obligatory rite of passage for potential Republican presidential aspirants, who can burnish their foreign policy bona fides by publicly embracing one of America's closest allies.

Rubio's visit comes on the heels of similar visits from Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who are also thought to be eyeing 2016 bids. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney visited Israel last July, before the beginning of the 2012 general election campaign.

The trip can also provide a way for Republicans to draw a contrast with an administration they've accused of undermining Israel.

Mr. Obama last visited Israel as a candidate in July 2008 before formally accepting the Democratic nomination for president. Some Republicans have interpreted his absence since then as a snub.

Despite close security and intelligence cooperation between the Israel and American governments during Mr. Obama's tenure, the president has occasionally sparred with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, a territory that would constitute the core of any future Palestinian state.

A senior U.S. official told Reuters last Tuesday that Mr. Obama will visit Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan in March.

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