Candidates court Jews with hard line on Iran, Israel security

The leading GOP presidential candidates staked out hawkish positions this week as they spoke before one of the president’s most loyal constituencies: Republican Jews.

The Republican Jewish Coalition on Tuesday, Oct. 16 hosted a forum in Washington for presidential hopefuls. Six of the party’s nine candidates were invited, and five attended: former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, and U.S. Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Giuliani, the front-runner in national polls and among Jewish fund-raisers, and Romney, who leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, both promised a hard-line approach to Iran and voiced skepticism over the Bush administration’s efforts to broker a Middle East peace deal leading to the creation of a Palestinian state.

Thompson also emphasized the Iranian threat. “The terror masters in Tehran and Damascus make only the most minor distinction between the United States of America and Israel,” he said. “They say that America is the Great Satan, and Israel is the Little Satan, and they both must be destroyed.”

McCain said winning in Iraq was critical not just for U.S. interests but for Israel, and declared that “the transforming struggle of the 21st century is our struggle against radical Islamic extremism.”

Brownback recently voiced support for a pro-settler initiative to extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank, directly undercutting Bush’s attempt to leave a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of his legacies.

This summer Matt Brooks, the RJC’s executive director, and two of the organization’s other board members — Ari Fleischer, Bush’s former White House spokesman, and Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul — joined in establishing FreedomsWatch, a group dedicated to preserving what likely has become the president’s most unpopular legacy, the Iraq occupation.

Most of the new group’s funders are well known as the RJC’s principal backers, including Mel Sembler, a former ambassador to Rome, and Richard Fox, an RJC founder.

McCain criticized Bush’s policy in Iraq and implied another sharp rebuke to Bush, saying he did not trust Russian President Vladimir Putin when it came to seeking international assistance in isolating Iran until it ends its suspected nuclear weapons program.

“I looked into Putin’s eyes and I saw three letters — a K, a G and a B,” he said. The jab drew scattered applause and some murmurs among a crowd fiercely loyal to Bush.

Romney expressed skepticism about Bush administration plans to convene a peace conference next month in Annapolis, Md. Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, says the aim of the conference is Palestinian statehood.

“How could you possibly have a peace conference at this stage?” he asked, noting that the Palestinian Authority leadership had yet to wrest control of the Gaza Strip from Hamas terrorists. “Who would you talk to?”

On several fronts the RJC continues to stake out right-of-center positions, even as Bush and the GOP candidates have moderated their stands.

Giuliani drew sharp distinctions between himself and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, accusing her of wanting to “negotiate” with Iran.

Both candidates favor keeping military options on the table. Giuliani said he was more decisive than Clinton, noting his order in 1995 ejecting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from a Lincoln Center concert.

He also took a dig at Romney, who is leading in key primary states. Giuliani said that when he ejected Arafat, “I didn’t call for a team of lawyers,” referring to a Romney debate answer to how he would deal with an Iranian attack on American troops in Iraq.

Giuliani hinted at a split with the Bush administration, saying the time was not right to discuss Palestinian statehood. He said Palestinians must first recognize Israel and dismantle terrorist groups.

In addition to standing with Bush on foreign policy, Republican Jews also have emerged as one of the few constituencies willing to touch what has become a third rail in congressional politics: Bush’s determination to roll back parts of the popular State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which reaches children from families that earn above the Medicaid threshold but still cannot afford insurance.

SCHIP has wall-to-wall Jewish community backing, but in recent weeks Noam Neusner, Bush’s former Jewish liaison, defended the president’s position in the Forward and Michael David Epstein, a senior RJC activist, did the same on JTA.

Brooks said such loyalty is natural for a president that has proven second to none in his backing for Israel.

“Bush has earned it,” he said. “Here’s a president who in very difficult and challenging times, especially on core issues like Israel, was there for us and was one of the only world leaders standing shoulder to shoulder with Israel.”

Despite the overwhelming focus on foreign policy at the RJC event, and the fact that Brownback’s longstanding rejection of legalized abortion and opposition to gay marriage places him on the opposite side of much of the U.S. Jewish community, he earned applause with comments about family values. “We’ve got to rebuild our family culture,” Brownback said. “The place to raise a child is with a mom and a dad.”

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, was invited but could not attend the event.

Not invited were long-shots U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter of California, Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Ron Paul of Texas. Paul was rejected because of his consistent voting record against U.S. assistance to Israel and his criticism of the pro-Israel lobby.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief