Republican presidential candidates took turns bashing President Obama’s record on Israel, as they made their pitch to Jewish Republican voters less than a month before the primary season kicks off.
The message delivered to an audience of Jewish supporters by six of the Republican hopefuls (Ron Paul was not invited to the forum) in a day-long event organized by the Republican Jewish Coalition, was a mix of criticism of the current administration and promises for the future. They included standard no-brainer applause lines such as pledging to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and vowing to make Israel the first foreign visit after being elected.
Timing played well for Republicans, as they took to the podium only days after a series of comments from senior administration officials viewed by Israelis and some Jewish groups as indicating a lack of support for Israel by the Obama administration. These comments included a call from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta for Israel to return to the “damn table” and talk to Palestinians, criticism by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of recent Israeli actions limiting civil and women’s rights, and a controversial remark made by the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, some interpreted as excusing European anti-Semitism.
“This one-sided continuing pressure that says it’s always Israel’s fault no matter how bad the other side is has to stop,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the current frontrunner in the polls.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who is trailing in the polls, said the recent remarks should be seen as reflecting the Obama administration’s mindset.
“These aren’t speeches that are cooked up at the local level and at the embassy,” Huntsman said. “They go high up within the State Department.”
Absent from the discussion was the issue of foreign aid to Israel which has provoked concern in the pro-Israel community following comments by candidates Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich that they would “start from the zero” any process of deciding and allocating U.S. foreign aid to all countries, including Israel.
Perry made an attempt to provide a more nuanced explanation for his policy by telling the Jewish audience that zeroing out aid would not impact “strategic aid” such as that provided to Israel.
“Strategic defensive aid under a Perry administration will increase to Israel,” the Texas governor promised. Under current laws, there is no distinction between civil and military aid, since both come out of the State Department foreign operations budget.
Gingrich and Romney, who was the odds-on favorite to win the nomination until recently, avoided the issue altogether and were not asked about it in the question-and-answer session, which was made up of friendly remarks by RJC members.
After initially making the remark about cutting foreign aid, Romney’s campaign insisted the candidate did not direct his comments at Israel, but Romney himself has yet to clarify his position, a stance that was highlighted by Democrats in their response to the Republican speeches.
“If Gov. Romney isn’t willing to support Israel’s military and foreign aid package before an audience of pro-Israel, Republican Jews many of us believe he simply doesn’t support it,” said Rep. Steve Rothman, a New Jersey Democrat.
The Republican Jewish Coalitions candidates’ forum drew plenty of national media attention and put Jewish supporters of Obama on high alert.
The National Jewish Democratic Council issued statements responding to the candidates’ addresses, the Democratic National Committee offered fact sheets rebuking Romney’s statements and former Congressman Robert Wexler, in a conference call following the event, called the RJC gathering a “theater of absurd.” Even J Street, the left-leaning lobby, which is not affiliated with the Obama campaign or with Democratic Party, set up shop across the hall from the RJC gathering at the Ronald Reagan building in Washington and offered rebuttals on demand to attacks on Obama.
Mostly, the messages of all six presidential hopefuls to the Jewish community were similar and focused on a pledge to support Israel, tough talk on Iran and an explanation of their economic programs. Recurring themes included repealing “Obamacare”; accusing the president of appeasing America’s enemies; and distancing themselves from Washington and from government bureaucracy.
Some, such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, evoked the “Judeo-Christian” foundations of America. Perry chose to speak of his religious belief and Michele Bachmann reminisced about her time as a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel (where she worked the cotton fields from four in the morning until late afternoon and then went to rest in an area of the kibbutz referred to by the overseas volunteers as the “ghetto.”)
Among the promises offered by Republican candidates to Jewish voters were a pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem on the first day of their presidency (Michele Bachmann even said she has secured funding from a donor to pay for the move); to visit Israel as first destination (Romney, Bachmann); to “take a meat ax” to the State Department if it keeps up its current policy regarding Israel (Santorum); and to appoint former controversial Bush administration U.N. ambassador John Bolton to Secretary of State (Gingrich).
Republican candidates all criticized President Obama’s handling with Iran’s nuclear threat. But most stopped short from calling for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Perry went further than others when suggesting the U.S. should offer its “vocal, unerring moral support” to Israel “in the face of what will be inevitable international condemnation if she is forced to strike [Iran].” According to Mitt Romney, the best solution for the Iran probably would be overthrowing the current leadership. “Ultimately,” Romney said, “regime change is what’s going to be necessary.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.