A series of speeches Saturday by Republican presidential candidates to a large gathering of Jewish donors and activists demonstrated how the escalating conflict in the Middle East has elevated foreign policy to a dominant campaign theme and highlighted new divisions within the primary race.
Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador, attacked former President Donald J. Trump, calling him “confused” about the threats facing the United States and Israel. Mr. Trump promised to fight “jihadists, terrorists, Marxists” abroad and at home. And Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida denounced the “false moral equivalence” between Hamas deaths and Israeli deaths.
The remarks to the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is taking place at a sprawling Venetian convention center in Las Vegas, came as Israel expanded its ground operations in Gaza and at a critical time for the primaries. While Mr. Trump is well ahead in the polls, time is running out for his opponents to stand out. And Ms. Haley and her other rivals see new opportunities in her clumsy response to attacks in Ukraine and Israel, which threaten to escalate into broader regional conflicts.
Mr. Trump, who spoke last, ignored the other candidates during his speech, focusing squarely on attacking President Biden as weak, while arguing that the world would be safer if he were still to the White House.
“If I were president, the attack on Israel would never have happened,” he told the 1,500 people in the ballroom. “I think you believe it.” Ukraine would never have arrived. Inflation would never have happened. »
Mr. Trump struck the most militaristic tone of the speakers, warning attendees of the threats of “a lot of strong young men” coming into the country who are “the same ones who attacked Israel.” He also praised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the neo-authoritarian leader admired by far-right nationalists in the United States and Europe, who has been accused of using anti-Semitic tropes for political purposes.
In his remarks, Mr. Trump spoke in the same vein as Mr. Orban — a “very strong man,” he said — promising to keep the country safe with threats of force.
“If you spill a drop of American blood, we’ll spill a gallon of yours,” he said, arguing that the world had become less safe under Mr. Biden’s leadership. “I will defend America, and I will defend Western civilization against the barbarians, savages and fascists you now see trying to harm our beautiful Israel. »
Mr. Trump did not comment on the departure of his former vice president, Mike Pence, who announced he was ending his presidential bid before Mr. Trump took the stage. In his final campaign speech, Mr. Pence warned his party against adopting an isolationist foreign policy – like that put forward by Vivek Ramaswamy, who preceded him on stage.
The annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition was perhaps the highest-profile gathering of the fall Republican primary season, taking on added urgency after Hamas’ attack on Israel three weeks ago. Last week, the organization was added as a sponsor of the third Republican debate, a reflection of how Israel has unified a broad coalition of voters and party officials, including foreign policy hawks, business leaders and evangelical Christians.
It’s also a galvanizing moment for Republican officials: At the last minute, the event schedule was changed to accommodate the first national appearance of newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson, who will address the group Saturday evening.
Ms Haley used her speech to launch some of the most scathing attacks of her 2024 primary race, questioning Mr Trump’s ability to manage the foreign affairs of a country facing multiple overseas military entanglements . She highlighted the former president’s comments calling Israeli intelligence and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weak just days after the attack.
“As president, I will not compliment Hezbollah. Nor will I criticize the Israeli Prime Minister in the midst of tragedy and war. We have no time for personal vendettas,” she told the crowd of donors, activists and officials. “With all due respect, I’m not wrong.”
Ms. Haley, known for her unwavering support for Israel as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, has climbed in the polls after two strong debate performances.
“Eight years ago, it was good to have a leader who broke things. But for now, we need a leader who also knows how to put things in order,” she said. “America needs a captain who will steady the ship, not capsize it. And Republicans need a candidate who can actually win.”
The eight candidates present gave their strong support to Israel, pledging to support military operations and combat the rise of anti-Semitic threats in their countries, particularly on university campuses.
Of all the candidates, only Mr. Ramaswamy qualified his support, signaling that he would be less inclined to provide military support to the Israelis as the conflict escalates. The entrepreneur and author attempted to win over the crowd by entering to the music of Matisyahu, an observant Jewish hip-hop artist, reciting a verse from a Jewish prayer in Hebrew and generously quoting David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. .
In his speech, which involved a meandering account of modern Israeli military history, Mr. Ramaswamy attempted to reformulate a more isolationist position in favor of Israel’s right to self-defense.
“If Israel wants to destroy Hamas, it must go ahead and destroy Hamas,” he said. “But these are decisions that must be made by Israel, not by America. I am not running for president of Israel. I am running for President of the United States.
Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who for months was Mr. Trump’s primary opponent on the campaign trail, took a more somber tone in his remarks, saying that “this is too serious a moment for pettiness.”
Mr. Christie and Mr. Ramaswamy were the only candidates whose speeches were met with resounding boos, albeit from different corners of the audience: Mr. Christie was targeted by Trump supporters, and Mr. Ramaswamy has been widely criticized for its reluctance to provide military support.
Mr. Trump entered Saturday’s event as a crowd favorite, beloved for his record on Israel as president, which included moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and signing the Abraham Accords, a deal normalizing relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. He also cut aid to the Palestinians and his administration took steps to label a campaign to boycott Israel as anti-Semitic.
But his criticism of Israeli intelligence and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, deemed weak just days after the attack, and his description of Hezbollah attackers as “very intelligent”, drew attacks from his rivals.
Amid expressing concern and solidarity with one of the United States’ closest allies, Republican politicians saw political opportunities in the divisions the conflict has opened in their country.
On Saturday, several speakers disparaged progressive Democratic lawmakers, particularly Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, whose names drew loud boos from the audience. Others spoke of tensions on college campuses, where students clash over the war.
“Progressives say they care about the safety and feelings of minorities, the oppressed and the marginalized,” said Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. “But when it comes to American Jews who are suffering, they remain silent. »
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