Republican politico Princella Smith gains policy chops in Israel 

What follows is your typical story of a 6-foot-tall black female Republican who starts off in Wynne, Arkansas, and ends up in Israel, writing for a Zionist newspaper and studying counter-terrorism.

Princella Smith has always been a wild card. A high school and college basketball star who interned for then-Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller and in John Boozman's congressional office, she first drew major attention on the political scene in 2004. As a 20-year-old Ouachita Baptist University student, she won MTV's "Stand up and Holla" essay contest, earning her a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention. Her speech was fiery and fun, and led many to proclaim her as a rising political star.

After college, she bounced around a few political gigs, working for Maryland Republican Michael Steele's unsuccessful Senate campaign and as a communications flack for Newt Gingrich and his PAC. In 2010, she ran for Arkansas's 1st District congressional seat after the retirement of Blue Dog Democrat Marion Berry. Despite the endorsements of her former mentor Gingrich and the Democrat-Gazette, the run was a dud — she fell to Rick Crawford in the Republican primary by a 78-22 margin.

This fall, Smith decided that she wanted to take a break from politics and focus on policy. She had always been interested in the Middle East and Israel, and started searching for programs with a focus in issues surrounding terrorism. Turns out, it's possible to get a graduate degree in counter-terrorism (they really need to get the word out — surely they'd have been overloaded with applicants with a little product placement on "Homeland"). Smith found one of the few schools in the world offering such a program, and was accepted into the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy in Herzliya, Israel, where she is now pursuing a master's degree in counter-terrorism and homeland security studies.

Smith grew up a minister's kid and had always been interested in Israel, but she was also drawn to the program by an earnest desire to gain some serious foreign-policy chops. "Most people when they think of me, they're thinking of campaigns and stuff," she says. "I know that at some point in my life I want to be able to make a serious impact on the world and make some kind of imprint on the globe. I'm not a person that can sit back and watch things happen in the world and not try to make it better. I think you have to equip yourself. A large part of equipping yourself is educating yourself and in this particular instance, you go to a place like Israel — going to a place like this is the best place to learn. If you're going to learn counter-terrorism, go learn it in a place where they're doing it."

What does a master's in counter-terrorism entail? In addition to general poli-sci courses, Smith has been taking classes and writing policy papers on various aspects of terrorism, from the role of the media to the roots of Islamic ideology. Packed into one year, the master's program covers the "essence of counter-terrorism," Smith says. "Knowing how to combat terrorism, knowing terrorism finance, knowing about the root, like — where are these terrorists getting their money from? What's the root cause? What makes a person want to be a suicide bomber? What's the essence of this conflict?"

In addition to her coursework, Smith is also writing for Israel Hayom, the most widely circulated newspaper in Israel. Gingrich helped connect her with the paper; Israel Hayom is run by Sheldon Adelson, the single biggest financial backer of Gingrich's run for president. (Smith said she has only met Adelson once but is a friend of his wife Miriam, an Israeli physician.)

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