Ahead of their second TV debate this week, the roster of Republican presidential hopefuls have been trying to out-support one another on Israel, wooing both voters and benefactors as they jostle for position.
GOP candidates hoping to challenge for the White House next year have lined up to bash Barack Obama’s Iran deal and press their pro-Israel credentials, with all 17 initial candidates clamouring to profess their stated support for the Jewish state.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently became the latest to appear alongside Jewish leaders and rabbis in a TV conference, urging Congress to block the Iran nuclear deal, before it became obvious that the deal would go through.
In the race to ‘out-support’ one another, rivals have raced to Tel Aviv, blasting the “lack of support” from Obama, painting themselves as Israel’s truest friend and pressing the Jewish button at every opportunity.
Scott Walker, one of several evangelical Christians on the list, who flew to Israel in May, said he decorates his home with menorah candles at Christmas, while John Kasich, who keeps his Bible close at hand, hit the campaign trail by espousing the wisdom of the Torah.
Their Christian beliefs have guided their geopolitical outlook, too. Rick Santorum, another evangelical, says the West Bank is “part of Israel” and that “there is no Palestinian,” adding: “You won’t find anyone more pro-Israel than me.”
In agreement was God-fearing Mike Huckabee, another candidate who flew to Israel in recent weeks. He said the Jewish state had as much right to the West Bank as the U.S. had to Manhattan.
Tea Party champion Ted Cruz went one step further, saying: “Anyone who hates Israel and the Jewish people is not following the teachings of Christ.”
Support has been unanimous. Brash front-runner Donald Trump, who tracks his loyalty to Israel to “the day I was born,” calls Barack Obama “Israel’s greatest enemy” and says he is “the only one who will give Israel the kind of support it needs”.
Elsewhere, Marco Rubio, who is “ardently committed” to Israel, said he would repeal the nuclear détente if he gets into the White House, calling it “outrageous, irresponsible and dangerous, betraying the commitment this nation has made to the right of a Jewish state to exist in peace”.
In their criticism of the deal, candidates have been joined by right-wing pro-Israel groups such the Republican Jewish Coalition and AIPAC, the latter an influential lobby that hosts huge annual conferences, attracting current and would-be presidents from Israel and the U.S.
In 2012, AIPAC famously snubbed then-candidate Ron Paul, father of 2016 candidate Rand Paul, because Ron said he would cut back on America’s military aid to Israel, worth $3 billion a year. Rand, an anti-interventionist libertarian like his dad, initially said he would do likewise, but later changed his tune, further seeking to prove his friendship with his proposed ‘Stand with Israel Act,’ which would cut U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority if it co-operates with Hamas.
Jeb Bush, the Florida-based brother of former president George W. Bush, vowed to “stand with brave, democratic Israel” and to “rebuild our vital friendship”. It was an allusion to the less-than-secret mistrust between Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu.
The sour personal relationship was used extensively by 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney in his presidential debates with Obama – events which saw the two men mention Israel 30 times. Such frequent reference led some Israelis to blush with embarrassment, with one Israeli newspaper declaring the country to be “the big winner” from the whole process.
This year continues that theme, with candidates boasting about their relationship with Israeli leaders. Former business executive Carly Fiorina says her first White House phone-call would be to her “good friend Bibi,” while Ben Carson said he would “make sure Israel knew we had its back”.
Whether they would rescind the Iran deal remains to be seen, but for now, candidates are full of opprobrium, with Lindsay Graham saying it is “akin to declaring war on Israel”. Some even go too far: Mike Huckabee was roundly criticised for saying Obama was “marching Israelis to the oven door”.
The obsession with Israel, and therefore Iran, can partly be explained by votes from both Jews and Christian evangelicals, many of whom see Israel as Ally Number One. But money also plays a part.
In a crowded field, financial backing can make or break a campaign, and wealthy U.S.-based Israel supporters bankroll candidates to the tune of millions. Among the wealthiest is casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who responds to hawkish sound-bites. When Newt Gingrich, his preferred candidate in 2012, said the Palestinians were “an invented people,” Adelson gave his campaign a multi-million dollar boost.
No doubt the sound-bites will continue, with ten televised debates to go, and with the national election is still over a year away. Who comes out as Israel’s top supporter – and whether that makes a difference in the end – remains to be seen.