by Anna Isaacs
All 14 Republican presidential candidates—with the last-minute exception of Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who was tied up with Senate voting—came ready to brandish their Israel-friendly credentials and national security chops at an all-day forum hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition Thursday.
At an event whose WiFi password was “HillaryIsWrongOnIran,” most of the candidates used their time—half an hour each in front of a sold-out auditorium at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC—to frame their platforms in opposition to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
“All of us are deeply concerned that this is another manifestation of radical Islamic terrorism,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said. “I believe this nation needs a wartime president to defend it.” Like most of the other candidates who took the stage, he also slammed President Barack Obama for avoiding the term “radical Islam.” “When the president says the Islamic State isn’t Islamic, that’s just nutty,” he said, to laughter and applause.
Cruz said that there hasn’t been a president “more antagonistic and hostile to the state of Israel in the entire history of this country” than Obama.
Cruz made explicit promises to repeated standing ovations: moving the American embassy to Jerusalem and ripping “to shreds” the “catastrophic” nuclear deal with Iran. Responding to a question on how he might convince staunchly pro-choice voters to vote for him, Cruz alluded to a strategy to turn out the evangelical Christian vote, saying that conservatives cannot win the White House without social conservatism. He then framed the choice for such voters as between voting for him and voting for Clinton—the equivalent, he said, to “voting for the Ayatollah Khamenei to have nuclear weapons.”
“It’s a question of saving this country,” he said. “I believe the stakes have never been higher than they are right now.”
“We should all look with a stone-cold seriousness at how we win,” he said.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) projected a comfortable friendliness with the crowd, whom he called “family,” promising that “If you elect me president, I might have the first all-Jewish cabinet” and asking, “Do you think I even need to talk to you about my support for Israel?” (“No,” some in the crowd responded aloud.)
Graham apparently veered from the expected script on Israel and foreign policy, slamming the Republican rhetoric on immigration and warning of losing the Hispanic vote “because they think we don’t like them.” He also took aim at the hard-line pro-life policies of some of his fellow candidates. “If the nominee of the Republican party will not allow for an exception for rape and incest, they will not win,” he said. “Ted Cruz doesn’t have an exception for rape and incest.”
“We will lose young women in droves,” he said.
Graham also blasted Cruz’s electoral strategy.
“I believe that it’s not about turning out evangelical Christians. It’s about repairing the damage done by incredibly hateful rhetoric driving a wall between us and the fasting-growing demographic in America, who should be Republican,” he said. “I believe Donald Trump is destroying the Republican party’s chance to win an election that we can’t afford to lose.”
Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who received one of the warmest welcomes of the day, said that Israel “stands on the front lines of our civilizational struggle against radical, apocalyptic Islam.” He quickly laid into the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which he called a “clever, politically correct way to call for Israel’s destruction” and the recent European Union trade rule that labels products coming out of the West Bank.
“Discriminatory laws that apply only to Jews are now being written into European law for the first time in more than half a century,” he said, and received a standing ovation for the line, “I believe we need a president who is not afraid to call this out for what it is. This is anti-Semitism.”
Rubio accused the Obama administration of turning its back on Israel and criticized its “moral equivalence” of Israel and “those who seek to destroy her.” If elected, he said, he would “shred” the nuclear deal, defund UN agencies that “attack Israel or promote anti-Semitism,” and “rebuild” the U.S.-Israeli alliance.
“The days of giving the Ayatollah more respect than the prime minister of Israel will be over,” he said.
Though most candidates declared unequivocally their intention to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Donald Trump—introduced as “a mensch with chutzpah”—elicited loud boos when he seemed to hedge on that promise by not agreeing to preset terms to any negotiation between Israel and Palestinians.
He appeared to win the audience back, however, with boasts of his deal-making skills, and this line: “Don’t worry about it. You’re gonna be very happy.”
It wasn’t the only awkward moment. Though Trump landed laugh line after laugh line, he appeared to make repeated references to the business acumen and haggling skills of his Jewish audience. “I’m a negotiator like you folks,” he said, and “Is there anyone that doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room? Perhaps more than in any other room that I’ve ever spoken in.” Trump also made pointed references to the wealth of those in attendance. “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” he said. “If I wanted your money, I think I’d have a damn good chance.”
Trump said that President Obama is “the worst thing that’s ever happened to Israel”—to loud applause—and called Secretary of State John Kerry “probably the worst negotiator I’ve ever seen” to cheers. He promised that, as president, he would “do more for Israel than anyone else” and slammed Clinton for her use of private e-mail during her time as secretary of state, saying she shouldn’t be allowed to run. “She doesn’t have the strength or the energy” to help Israel, he added.
The Iranian nuclear deal will be the worst thing that’s ever happened to Israel, Trump said. As for ISIS? “We’re gonna knock the crap out of them,” he said. “I’ll tell you what: we’re gonna win.”
Ben Carson, whose first visit to Israel was last year, waxed poetic on visiting the land of the bible and won some applause for his opposition to allowing Syrian refugees into the United States. But his most-applauded line in an otherwise sleepy, scripted speech seemed to come when he praised Israel for its democratic values. “I dare say there are more women fighter pilots in Israel than women with driver’s licenses in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee—who first visited Israel when he was 17 years old—drew laughs when he noted the “extraordinary level of patience and long-suffering with the Jewish people” in reference to the all-day forum. He trumpeted the principles of religious liberty that unite Israel and the United States and quoted the biblical book of Genesis to applause: “Those who bless Israel will be blessed and those who curse Israel will be cursed,” he said.
Huckabee stood apart with his professed disbelief in a two-state solution, saying that the Israeli government is the only one that can guarantee religious freedom and protect the antiquities of the land. And he railed against the notion that Israel must be pushed to the negotiating table, to much applause: “Where have you been for the past 70 years?” he said. “It has been Israel that has consistently given up and given up and given up and gotten nothing in return.”
Huckabee expressed explicit support for continued settlement-building in the West Bank, which he referred to as Judea and Samaria. “No American president should ever put pressure on Israel to give up land that God gave them the title deed to,” he said. But while he aimed to distance himself somewhat from the evangelical affinity for Israel that stems from beliefs about the apocalypse—even without the theological basis, he said, he would still hold his friendly views on Israel—Huckabee conceded that on the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion, he may alienate some socially liberal Jewish Republicans.
“If that’s the deciding point, I lose you,” he said. “I understand that.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie focused heavily on the threat of terrorism at home, saying he is “convinced” that the San Bernardino shooting was an act of terrorism and vowed to work as president to prevent future attacks. “If a center for the developmentally disabled in California can be a target for a terrorist attack, then every place in America is a target for a terrorist attack,” he said.
“We are in the midst of the next world war,” Christie said, warning that the U.S. has become “complacent and soft.”
Christie also made veiled barbs at Trump, saying that while “sometimes the harsher words are the ones that make us laugh,” a leader must “know where the line is.”
“That’s not about political correctness,” he reassured the crowd. “I have never been accused of that.”
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore’s appearance was announced to audible groans of disappointment from an audience expecting Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush up next after Paul dropped out of the event. But Gilmore earned chuckles when he riffed on a reporter’s use of kishkes in an article about the forum, schooled affectionately by the crowd on the Yiddish word’s pronunciation. He also made sure to note that he had watched Schindler’s List the night before.
Bush, who took the stage to roaring applause, was the first candidate to wish the audience a happy Hanukkah. Bush declared that his relationship with Israel “goes way back” and said that the first step in earning back American allies’ respect would be “to restore the ruptured relationship with Israel.”
Bush took aim at the “moral equivalence between attacks on Israel and its self-defense” and vowed to work with the next attorney general to stop the spread of BDS within the United States, and particularly on college campuses. “The political correctness of our country needs to be shattered,” he said. “These growing cases of anti-Semitic behavior by a few, supported by professors and administrators…has to stop,” he said.