GOP 2016 Candidates Tout Frosty U.S.-Israel Relations

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By Alexandra Jaffe

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington this week seeking to mend fences with the Obama administration and Democrats after a bitter divide over the nuclear deal with Iran earlier this year. The two leaders met at the White House for their first face-to-face meeting in over a year and President Obama talked about finding “common ground” with the Prime Minister on a range of issues going forward.

But on the campaign trail throughout the tense disagreements this summer, Republican presidential contenders have made it a point to emphasize that they would always be the party of Israel.

Sen. Ted Cruz frequently uses fiery rhetoric on the campaign trail to target President Obama for what he says is the administration’s “abandonment” of Israel. He included it in announcement speech at Liberty University, saying, “instead of a president who boycotts Prime Minister Netanyahu, imagine a president who stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel.”

“There has been no administration more hostile [to Israel] than the Obama administration,” he said during a campaign stop in Iowa last month.

Cruz has pledged to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a controversial promise as the city’s provenance remains disputed. It’s one, however, that many in the field have latched onto to show their support, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

Other candidates have made an aggressive play for the support of the Jewish and pro-Israel community. Sen. Marco Rubio has emphasized his experience on the Senate Foreign Relations committee in his defense of Israel, and recently picked up the backing of major GOP donor Paul Singer, a staunch supporter ofAmerica’s middle east ally.

The GOP rhetoric defending Israel reached new heights surrounding the Iran nuclear deal, which the GOP primary field has near-universally promised to work to undo or eliminate if elected. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pledged to rip up the agreement on his first day in office – a promise made before he ended his presidential campaign.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee drew controversy when he charged in July that Obama was marching Israel to the “door of the oven” with the Iran nuclear deal, and suggested the deal would lead to a “big Holocaust,” but he stood by those remarks and has spoken out against the deal frequently since.

He, like Cruz, Rubio and others in the field, have made a point of visiting Israel numerous times and meeting with Netanyahu while there, to show their commitment to the nation.

The negotiations over the Iran deal also strained already-frayed relations between Netanyahu and President Obama to a near-breaking point, after Netanyahu vehemently denounced the deal in a speech to Congress at the Capitol.

Many saw then-House Speaker John Boehner’s move to invite the prime minister, without giving the White House much notice, as a political ploy intended to further exacerbate tensions between the two leaders and curry favor with supporters of Israel for the GOP.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton isn’t ceding the issue to the Republicans, however. In an op-ed in Jewish DailyForward last week titled, “How I would reaffirm [the] unbreakable bond with Israel – and Benjamin Netanyahu,” Clinton wrote: “I will do everything I can to enhance our strategic partnership and strengthen America’s security commitment to Israel, ensuring that it always has the qualitative military edge to defend itself. That includes immediately dispatching a delegation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to meet with senior Israeli commanders. I would also invite the Israeli prime minister to the White House in my first month in office.”

The political advantage for Republicans to show support for Israel is varied: A strong commitment to Israel is a key issue for Evangelical voters, which make up a sizeable portion of the GOP primary electorate in early voting states like Iowa; and many major GOP donors are Jewish-American and strong defenders of Israel in their own right.

It’s a rare issue, too, that unites both wings of the GOP, as the establishment wing of the GOP on foreign policy holds a defense of Israel as an unshakeable priority.

And there are indications that Jewish voters in the U.S.are becoming increasingly Republican. A Pew Forum analysis of exit polling data on midterm House elections found that Republicans won 33 percent of the Jewish vote in 2014, an increase from 12% in 2006.

But many in the Jewish American community have expressed concerns over the potential politicization of Israel, wary of the possibility that military and financial aid to the nation could eventually be in jeopardy.

William Daroff, head of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington, D.C. office, said it was important to maintain unity surrounding Israel because of the potential security risks if the issue becomes too partisan.

“It’s important that in this age, where there are so few issues where the parties have agreement, so few issues where liberals and conservatives agree, so few issues that pass unanimously in Congress — it’s important that the common ground for strong U.S. support of Israel remain above that fray,” he said. “It’s important for U.S. security, Israeli security, and frankly for global security.”

Netanyahu’s trip to the US, observers say, is intended to smooth relations with both the President and members of his party. His speech on Tuesday at the Center for American Progress — a liberal think tank in Washington — is aimed in particular reaching out liberals wary of the Prime Minister and skeptical of Israel. Daroff said he’s spoken to officials in the Israeli government about the speech, and Netanyahu sees the address as an “olive branch” to liberals.

“He will talk to them about how israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and will emphasize Israel’s strong commitment to LGBT rights, women’s rights and labor rights,” he said.

To that effect, both Obama and the prime minister struck a conciliatory tone before their meeting Monday, seeking, in a joint appearance before press, to emphasize areas of mutual agreement and support.

"I want to be very clear that we condemn, in the strongest terms, Palestinian violence against innocent Israeli citizens," Obama told reporters.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, expressed a commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after seeming to reject the option during his reelection campaign last Spring. He also expressed his condolences over the deaths of Americans in an attack in Jordan on Monday.

"We are with you. We are with each other in more ways than one,” Netanyahu said.