Washington — As Sarah Palin embarked on a tour for her just published book “Going Rogue,” she became the latest prospective Republican presidential candidate to criticize the Obama administration’s policy on Israel.
In an interview with ABC News last week, the former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate told Barbara Walters that Jewish settlements “should be allowed to be expanded upon” because “more and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead.”
At least two other likely candidates for the GOP nomination in 2012 have made similar comments in recent months.
During a trip to Israel over the summer, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said the United States should not be telling Israelis where they can live. And last month, in a speech to AIPAC leaders at a conference in San Diego, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney offered broader criticism of the administration’s Middle East policy, saying it was putting too much pressure on Israel and not enough on the Arab world.
Jewish Republican insiders said the Israel talk from the prospective 2012 candidates should not be seen as an effort to court Jewish voters, but simply a desire to weigh in on an issue that is important to the candidates themselves and to conservative voters in general.
Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former Bush administration liaison to the Jewish community, noted that there aren’t many Jewish voters in Republican primaries. But, he added, maintaining a strong U.S.-Israel alliance is an issue that unites the sometimes disparate elements of the conservative coalition – from neoconservatives to evangelical Christians to economic conservatives.
“If you want to be a conservative candidate, you have to check that pro-Israel box,” he said.
Some GOP insiders also said that Jewish Republicans make up a significant portion of the party’s financial base, and one way for candidates to become more attractive to such donors is to shore up their pro-Israel bona fides. But right now, said Republican Jewish activist and fund-raiser Fred Zeidman, people are thinking much more about the 2010 races than they are about 2012 presidential hopefuls.
Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks said he didn’t think there was political calculation in the criticism of Obama administration policy.
“These are individuals who believe very passionately and strongly in the security of Israel,” Brooks said. “They’re all private citizens and speaking out.”
Meanwhile, Palin’s remarks on settlements spurred a war of words between Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman and J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami.
Ben-Ami issued a statement saying that Palin’s “pandering to her right-wing base comes at the expense of the security of the State of Israel” and “the lives of those actually living the conflict.” The J Street leader said her words “reveal a glaring ignorance of damaging facts and a callous disregard of past and present U.S. policy.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have argued that limited settlement expansion should be permitted to accommodate the growth of families already living there, not for the purpose of absorbing immigrants.
J Street’s strong criticism of Palin drew a rebuke from Foxman, who specifically called JTA to slam J Street’s statement, asserting that it was “over the line.” Foxman said it was “the height of chutzpah” for J Street to claim that it knows what is best for the security of Israel.
“They’re attacking a celebrity for supporting Israel, but not in the way they want her to support Israel,” Foxman said.
Foxman acknowledged that he thought Palin’s remarks were a “simplistic effort to be supportive of the Israeli government,” but also insisted that they were “clear and well-intentioned” and “didn’t put any lives at stake.”
The ADL leader also questioned whether J Street should be calling itself “pro-Israel.” Foxman noted that In addition to its negative reaction to Palin’s comments, J Street has criticized Israel’s invasion of Gaza, opposed new Iran sanctions at the present time and failed to support last month’s congressional resolution condemning the Goldstone report.
Ben-Ami struck back with an open letter to Foxman in which he reiterated his view that Palin’s comments were “outside the mainstream of American and Israeli thinking,” as well as “misinformed and dangerous.” The J Street leader insisted that Foxman is not entitled to determine who is pro-Israel.
“You have every right to disagree with us. It’s a free country,” Ben-Ami wrote. “But you have no right to decide who is and is not pro-Israel based on whether they agree with your views.”