Playing the Israel Card in the First GOP Debate

By | Sep 05, 2023
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1. In the First GOP Debate, Israel Was No More than a Side Note

The Republican race to the White House kicked off officially last month, and GOP presidential hopefuls are now preparing for their second debate, scheduled to take place on September 27 in California.

It is, as many have noted, an unusual primary competition, one in which the leading candidate, polling way ahead of all others, refuses to show up for debates and instead conducts his public appeal to voters from his many courtroom and arraignment stops across the country. The others, a crowded field of has-beens and wannabes, are fighting for crumbs in hopes of getting noticed and considered, perhaps, for the second seat on Trump’s ticket.

Either way, it is already safe to say that Jewish issues, including those relating to U.S. relations with Israel, are not a significant factor in the Republican primary race.

True, during the first debate in Milwaukee, the question of Israel got some air time, overshadowing other burning international issues that got little to no attention, from China to Iran.

It came up as a planned attack line, not an integral part of the course of the debate. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who served as ambassador to the UN under Trump, chose to bring up the question of U.S. aid to Israel as a way of painting Vivek Ramaswamy, the firebrand biotech entrepreneur running on an anti-woke agenda, as unprepared on foreign policy.

“He wants to go and stop funding Israel,” Haley slammed Ramaswamy, who has said that if elected president he’d move to end America’s $3.8 billion annual military aid to Israel. On stage, Ramaswamy tried to explain, putting an interesting twist on the issue. According to the 38-year-old candidate, who is now polling third in the race, he’ll be such a great friend of Israel that by the time the 10-year aid agreement expires (in 2028), Israel will be so strong it will no longer need American assistance. “Friends help each other stand on their own two feet,” he said, only to prompt another round of attacks from Haley. “You don’t do that to your friends,” she said, adding that “it’s not that Israel needs America. America needs Israel.”

2. Why Did Haley Play the Israel Card?

There is still a huge distance between talking about cutting aid to Israel and actually taking action.

For starters, the current agreement ensuring U.S. aid to Israel expires only in 2026, so any question regarding future assistance will be postponed at least until after the 2024 presidential election. Moreover, President Biden is definitely not there. Nor are his top foreign policy advisers. Messing with foreign aid to Israel is not part of the toolbox for the Biden administration.

And yet, listening to Democrats talk openly about the issue is striking.

Last week, I asked Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who is the House chief deputy whip as well as vice chair of the Progressive Caucus, about the notion of cutting aid to Israel. 

Schakowsky, who recently coauthored the House resolution expressing support for Israelis protesting Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul, is a decades-long friend of Israel, even though she does not shy away from criticizing its policies. 

She didn’t seem opposed to raising the issue of aid cuts. “I would welcome being part of a conversation [about it],” she said. Schakowsky then added: “Right now, there is no suggestion on the table. Should we change the nature of our relationship? And if we do, what does that look like? There really has not been any concrete proposal.”

And this is exactly the type of response that is making the pro-Israel mainstream lose sleep these days.

3. Ramaswamy Learns that Israel Is Too Hot to Touch

In the days following the first debate, Vivek Ramaswamy tried to justify, explain and essentially walk back his idea of cutting aid to Israel.

Like other newcomers to the political scene, Ramaswamy seems to have miscalculated the sensitivity of the question. 

He can look back at an all-but-forgotten episode from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. The inexperienced real estate mogul briefly suggested that Israel, among other countries, should repay the United States for the assistance it’s receiving. “I think Israel will do that also, yeah…there are many countries that can pay and they can pay big league,” he said in March 2016, early on in the campaign.

It took less than a day for Trump to get educated on the issue and he never repeated that suggestion again.

Ramaswamy, just like Trump, did not arrive at the political scene from a political or foreign policy ecosystem and so isn’t as acquainted as other candidates with the subtleties of discussing aid to Israel. It’s a quick learning curve and Ramaswamy already seems on track to figuring out what is and isn’t allowed when it comes to discussing Israel in mainstream political circles.

4. Things to Look Out for in the Coming Week

Back from Labor Day weekend, we’re basically in the fall (if 96 degrees in Washington, DC, can count as fall, that is). Which means it’s time for the Biden administration to make good on its promise to have Netanyahu over for a meeting somewhere in the United States, sometime in the fall.

Timing is attached to the United Nations General Assembly which will convene in New York in the third week of September. Bibi will be there, and so will Biden.

Expect a formal announcement about the meeting sometime this week, and look out for the venue: If Netanyahu gets invited to the White House, there’s reason for celebration in Jerusalem. It would indicate that the Biden-imposed ban is over. But if the meeting is scheduled for the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, it will be a clear sign that relations aren’t back on track yet.

5. Bibi’s Last-Minute Effort

In what seems to be a last-ditch attempt to address Biden’s concerns over the direction in which Netanyahu is leading Israel, and, at the same time, to possibly avoid a looming Supreme Court hearing on part of his proposed judicial overhaul, Netanyahu has indicated a sudden willingness to compromise with the opposition over the judicial changes.

Late Monday, a set of coordinated leaks to Israeli media outlets flooded the airways with reports of surprise progress being made in talks sponsored by Israel’s president Isaac Herzog. According to these reports, Netanyahu’s negotiators now seem poised to agree to pausing key elements of the reform for 18 months and to moderating other measures.

If these reports turn into a real compromise, Netanyahu’s visit to the United States later this month will take on a whole different tone. Instead of coming to town as a belligerent extremist on a path to overturn Israel’s democratic values, Netanyahu will be able to arrive as the leader who weathered the storm, who took a set of extreme proposals that tore the nation apart and turned them into a palatable, consensus-based platform for discussion about possible adjustments to Israel’s judicial system.

But that’s a very big if. There is no formal compromise on the table yet, it is not clear if the opposition will agree to it and even less clear that Netanyahu’s own coalition will sign on.

Top Image: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

One thought on “Playing the Israel Card in the First GOP Debate

  1. Matthew V McLaughlin says:

    2500 words on Israel and the GOP but 600 days of Israeli refusal to join sanctions against Russia not mentioned?
    2) $120B worth of FBI-wanted oligarchs enjoying safe haven in Israel, but not mentioned?
    The press and the owned media talking tid- bit nonsense while Israeli refusal to join sanctions against Russia is kept out of the news> is a powderkeg.

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