Israel Looms As a Key Issue in GOP Race

By Patrick Goodenough | August 15, 2011 | 4:44 AM EDT

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( – While foreign policy has not featured strongly in the early stages of the Republican 2012 presidential campaign, events in the comings weeks look set to change that, as candidates seek to burnish pro-Israel credentials in the face of a Palestinian push for U.N. recognition.

Many conservatives, evangelical Christians among them, view firm backing for Israel as a requirement for any sustainable GOP candidacy. It is also an issue of potential vulnerability for President Obama, given the perception that he has been less supportive of Israel than predecessors of either party in recent decades.

The Palestinian Authority (P.A.) plans to seek recognition for “Palestine” during the annual General Assembly session opening next month, and concern that the move – while largely symbolic – could spark fresh violence and worsen chances for a negotiated settlement, provides the nine Republicans currently in the race with an opportunity to distinguish themselves from their rivals on a key foreign policy issue.

Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich answers questions at a town hall meeting in North Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday, July 12, 2011. Gingrich, seeking the GOP presidential nomination, was on a two-day campaign swing through South Carolina. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich published an op-ed last week urging the Obama administration to threaten to cut all funding to the U.N. if it goes ahead with the move.

Gingrich conceded that the administration has voiced opposition to the P.A. plan, but said that “President Obama apparently retains faith in what is clearly a corrupt organization.”

“The United States has the leverage to prevent this diplomatic disaster if the Obama Administration wants to use it: we are by far the largest donor to the U.N., financing roughly a quarter of its entire budget,” he wrote. “We don’t need to fund a corrupt institution to beat up on our allies.”

The Palestinian U.N. vote issue did not come up during the GOP presidential debate in Ames, Iowa last Thursday although Israel did, briefly.

The strongest statement of support for the Jewish state came from former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty – now out of the race – who accused Obama of sticking “his thumb in Israel’s eye.”

“There should be no daylight between us and the nation of Israel,” he said to applause. “They’re one of our best friends in the world.”

Candidates Herman Cain and Rick Santorum both brought up Israel in the context of the threat posed by Iran.

Rep. Ron Paul also mentioned Israel in connection with Iran, but took a divergent approach, asking why it would not be “natural” for Iran to want the atomic bomb considering it was surrounded by countries with nuclear arsenals – including Israel.

GOP presidential candidate, businessman Herman Cain campaigns at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday, Aug. 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

One candidate likely to get exposure on the issue in the coming days is Cain, who last May accused Obama of throwing Israel “under the bus” for his endorsement of future Israeli and Palestinian states with borders based on the “1967 lines.”

The former corporate executive is taking part in broadcaster Glenn Beck’s rally in support of Israel, to be held in Jerusalem next Wednesday.

Cain told Israel’s Ha’aretz daily in a recent interview that his forthcoming visit to Jerusalem went beyond politics.

“Having been raised as a Christian, I am more excited about this trip from a personal standpoint than a political standpoint,” he said. “My wife is with me because we have been believers all our lives, and it’s very exciting to go back to the place where over 3,000 years ago the Jewish people settled this land.”

‘Insulting friends, encouraging enemies’

In his speech in Charleston, S.C. announcing his entry into the GOP race Saturday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry referred to Israel in comments criticizing what he called the administration’s “incoherent” foreign policy.

“Our president has insulted our friends and he’s encouraged our enemies, thumbing his nose at traditional allies like Israel,” he said. “He seeks to dictate new borders for the Middle East and the oldest democracy there, Israel, while he is an abject failure in his constitutional duty to protect our borders in the United States.”

Perry also touched on the subject in an interview with Time magazine a few days earlier, saying Obama’s statement on the 1967 lines had “sent a chill down all of my friends’ back and certainly mine. Israel is our friend. Israel is a democracy in the middle of a part of the world where having a democracy is really important.”

Obama’s “1967 lines” speech in May brought strong responses from several of the candidates at the time, including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.).

On their campaign Web sites, most candidates have references to Israel.

Romney’s site says his foreign policy would include “bolster[ing] our support for Israel, which has always been and will continue to be our strongest ally in the Middle East.”

Bachmann on her site states, “We have a President who tells our true friend, Israel, that it must surrender its right to defensible borders to appease forces that have never recognized that nation’s right to exist.”

“We must support sovereign democracies under terrorist threats, including Israel, a staunch ally and strategic asset under an ever-growing threat from terrorist forces and hostile nations,” says Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.) on his campaign site. “While we support a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians, we must not dictate any terms of the agreement or force our ally to directly or indirectly negotiate with terrorists like Hamas.”

Paul on Israel

Paul’s stance on Israel has provoked discussion for years. Republican and Democratic Jewish organizations view his positions as virulently anti-Israel, pointing mostly to his initiatives to end U.S. aid to Israel.

His remark last year about the Gaza Strip being “almost like concentration camps” and his House votes against Iran sanctions legislation have not endeared him to Israel supporters either.

Paul’s camp says his stance on aid to Israel is a reflection of his broader libertarian and non-interventionist stance, which opposes all foreign aid.

Paul also often points out that the U.S. is simultaneously funding both Israel and countries hostile to Israel

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) speaks during the Iowa Republican Party's straw poll, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

“I am not the only one who can see the absurdities of our foreign policy,” he said in a statement responding to Obama’s “`1967 lines” speech. “We give $3 billion to Israel and $12 billion to her enemies. Most Americans know that makes no sense.”

In that same statement, Paul called Israel “our close friend.”

Unlike Obama, he said, “I do not believe it is our place to dictate how Israel runs her affairs. There can only be peace in the region if those sides work out their differences among one another. We should respect Israel’s sovereignty and not try to dictate her policy from Washington.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow