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1. Republican Candidates’ Pro-Israel Competition
It’s an annual event, planned way before that terrible Saturday, October 7, but the impact of Hamas’s murderous attack on Israel dominated the discussions at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s leadership summit in Las Vegas this weekend. All the Republican presidential candidates showed up—even the frontrunner.
As Israelis continued to bury their dead and search for abducted loved ones, and with the IDF intensifying its ground operation in Gaza, the candidates all joined in unison to express their unwavering support for the Jewish state and each tried to make the case that in this time of need, they are the right person for the job of helping Israel overcome the crisis.
All candidates echoed the same key themes: Complete and total denunciation of Hamas’s attack on Israel; full support for Israel’s military action in Gaza to uproot Hamas and bring to an end its hold in the region; pointing to Iran as the evil puppet master behind Hamas and Hezbollah; and vowing to fight antisemitism, which has increased in the United States and worldwide following the attack.
These are all talking points on which President Biden and most Democrats would also sign off.
The Republican version, however, includes some additional components: They accused Biden of being soft on Iran and specifically focused on his recent prisoner swap deal with the Iranian regime, which unfroze $6 billion in Iranian assets for humanitarian use. (It was refrozen two weeks ago.) Donald Trump, who easily outdid his fellow candidates in criticism of Biden, flatly declared that “Joe Biden’s weakness caused the attack on Israel. Pure weakness and incompetence.”
Another recurring theme for Republican candidates was how recent events revealed the danger posed to Israel and to American Jews by the progressive left and by its Democratic representatives in Congress. This claim is partially true but highly exaggerated. But it seems likely to prove very effective for Republicans who seek to differentiate themselves from Democrats on the issue of Israel.
And while these ideas were shared by all GOP candidates attending the event, each tried to add their own special spice that would make their love for Israel seem more genuine and convincing. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott chose a preacher-style delivery full of biblical references; Chris Christie, former New Jersey governor and now a leading never-Trump voice, advocated for “serious people” needed for this serious time in the Middle East; Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and former U.S. ambassador to the UN who is well-liked by Jewish Republicans, played the role of the responsible adult focused on global geopolitics; Ron DeSantis delivered a convincing set of on-the-ground, pro-Israel actions he’s taken as governor of Florida, and, true to form, did so in the least convincing way; entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy struggled to explain how keeping America out of the Middle East is exactly what Israel needs now; former Vice President Mike Pence stole the show by using the platform to announce his decision to drop out of the race; and Donald Trump was Donald Trump.
2. Trump Cleans Up His Mess
Former President Trump arrived at the Adelson-owned Venetian Hotel in Vegas with some baggage. His comments on Israel and its leaders, made days after the deadly attack that thrust the nation into a full-scale war, had raised many eyebrows. Trump, at an October 11 campaign rally, criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, referred to Israel’s defense minister as “a jerk” and praised the Lebanon-based terror organization Hezbollah as “very smart.” In his Saturday speech at the RJC meeting, he was determined to correct course.
While Trump stuck to his signature rambling delivery, he avoided any mention of Netanyahu—once a close friend and now apparently a source of disappointment for the former president—and made sure not to make any comment seen as critical of Israel or insensitive to Israelis and American Jews.
Trump expanded on his record on Israel as president, including signing the Abraham Accords, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (including the inevitable story about building the new embassy for cheap and “full of Jerusalem stone,” a tale that by now is almost as iconic in Jewish circles as Biden’s Golda Meir story.) He expressed full support for Israel’s actions against Hamas, listed steps he’ll take against Hamas supporters in the United States if elected president again and took aim at progressive Democrats.
But mostly, Trump tried to make the case that the world and Israel were safer places when he was president and that Joe Biden ruined it all.
Trump, as always, won the most applause from the crowd, and according to a report from Haaretz, he’s likely to win Jewish Republican donors’ campaign dollars as well.
GOP Jewish bigwigs at the RJC event who were quoted in the Haaretz piece (but not named) have adopted a practical standpoint regarding Trump: He can deliver on Israel (or at least on their right-leaning version of being pro-Israel), and all the rest—be it unsavory comments on Netanyahu, flirting with antisemitic figures, criminal cases, January 6, election denial, and whatnot—are no more than background noise.
3. Weighing the Gaza War’s Political Impact
It’s way too early, and perhaps even inappropriate, to discuss how Israel’s war in Gaza will play out in the American electoral field. So let’s keep it short:
Biden, with his overwhelming support for Israel and hands-on management of the crisis is likely to make gains among mainstream Democrats and Independents who will look favorably at his approach and appreciate his foreign policy experience. This also means he may win back some voters concerned about his age.
Winning Jewish votes is always good news, but it’s largely irrelevant for Biden given the electoral map. Biden may have stronger showings among Jews in New York, New Jersey and California, but those states are not in play. Neither is Florida, which is long lost to Dems. Jewish voters could potentially play a role in swing states like Pennsylvania or Arizona, but these are communities that would have been likely to vote for Biden regardless of recent events.
Analysts have noted, however, that Biden’s pro-Israel approach may cost him progressive votes and the support of Arab and Muslim Americans. With Michigan in play, this may prove significant.
Trump, assuming he’s the Republican candidate, can play up his record on Israel in order to win back some Jewish voters who might have soured on him after 2020, but here, too, the electoral map doesn’t lend itself to making these votes count for much. And as long as Trump’s leading the Republican candidate pack, he’s likely to maintain support from Jewish donors, who’d rather support a pro-Israel frontrunner than bet on a rival who may be more to their liking but doesn’t stand a chance to win.
4. But What About the Aid Package?
This is where politics meets reality.
The Biden administration presented Congress with a massive $105 billion foreign aid package that includes $14.3 billion for Israel in emergency military assistance alongside $61.4 billion for Ukraine.
Some House Republicans have frowned upon the idea of providing more aid to Ukraine and are seeking to break up the administration’s request so that aid to Israel will go on a separate bill—and get approved—while money to Ukraine will be discussed on its own and will likely be cut or done away with altogether.
This promises a clash with the administration and with the Democratic-controlled Senate and could delay discussing and voting on the aid to Israel.
The new House Speaker, Mike Johnson, is a staunch supporter of Israel, as is Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, so aid to Israel, at the end of the day, will get approved and delivered, but it might take longer than the administration would like.
Israeli sources have said privately that while Israel needs any assistance it can get as early as possible, the items included in the new aid package are for the medium term and not for immediate battlefield use. Urgent needs in terms of ammunition and supplies are being met for now by direct transfers from U.S. military stockpiles to Israel.
5. Biden Outlines His Principles
As fighting intensifies, President Biden’s public rhetoric and his administration’s private messages to Israeli leaders are shifting from general expressions of support for an Israeli military operation, potentially including large scale ground incursions to destroy or at least downgrade Hamas’s military capabilities, to specific expectations and goals.
In very broad terms, these outlines include: demanding the provision of humanitarian support for uninvolved Palestinians in Gaza, including temporary pauses in Israel’s attacks and safe entry of aid convoys; Israel’s adherence—as much as possible—to international laws of war; protecting U.S. troops in the region and deterring Iran from expanding the conflict; releasing all hostages; and keeping in mind the need to move toward a long-term two-state solution once the war is over.
This last point, added in recent days, could lead eventually to a clash with Netanyahu’s government, although with public opinion in Israel turning against the prime minister, all bets are off as to who will be Washington’s partner in Jerusalem once all this is over.
Top Image: Gage Skidmore / U.S. Secretary of Defense / Navy v Notre Dame