Washington — Democratic heavyweights hit back at Republicans over their debate discussion about “zero-ing” U.S. aid to foreign countries, including Israel, during the weekend CBS News Republican debate.
Smelling a chance to win back disaffected Jewish voters, former Congressman Mel Levine penned an article in Israel’s Haaretz daily blasting the idea, and Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz issued a statement calling the proposal to begin aid discussions at zero “irresponsible.”
Former congressman Robert Wexler, who is known as both a supporter of Israel and of President Obama, convened a press conference call Monday in which he called the position of some of the Republican candidates “troubling” and argued that in calling for zeroing out foreign aid they are not honoring a memorandum of understanding signed between the U.S. and Israel in 2007.
The “zero” policy, he added, “sends a message to Iran that Israel’s outstanding military capabilities might suffer in years to come.”
The tempest started on Saturday night during the latest GOP debate. Republicans attacked President Barack Obama over Iran.
But alarm bells began ringing among pro-Israel activists when the discussion turned to the future of U.S. foreign aid. Asked if his policy of “foreign aid starts at zero” would include also aid to Israel, Texas governor Rick Perry replied: “Absolutely, every country would start at zero.” Perry immediately added that “obviously, Israel is a special ally, and my bet is that we would be funding them at some substantial level.”
Mitt Romney, the leading Republican candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also supported a “start at zero” policy for foreign aid.
After facing a barrage of attacks from Democrats stressing the potential threat this policy presents to Israel, Romney’s spokesman issued a statement making clear the former governor “was only referring to Pakistan and does not support zeroing out funding for every country.”
For Democrats, this clarification made little difference. The party sent out its heavyweight Jewish surrogates to speak out against cutting foreign aid.
The foreign aid debate couldn’t come at a better time for Democrats. It helps them change the subject with Jewish voters, who were still smarting from President Obama’s open microphone incident in which he was overheard complaining about the difficulty in dealing with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The biggest stakeholder in the debate over funding foreign aid has so far remained silent. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobby which dedicates a significant part of its work to securing aid to Israel, has yet to make its voice heard on the issues raised in the Republican debate.
AIPAC has stressed many times the need to ensure U.S. foreign aid to all countries and highlighted the benefits of such aid in advancing U.S. interests around the world. However, it refrained from publically taking on Republican candidates speaking out against foreign aid, presumably in an attempt to avoid being seen as supporting either side in the political debate.
Wexler, for one, believes AIPAC and like-minded organizations should speak out. “Certainly, the pro-Israel advocates in the U.S. should express themselves in the strongest of terms and reject this idea,” the former Democratic congressman said in his conference call.