Rand Paul, Israel & the GOP

| Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The other day, comedian-with-a-fake-news-show Jon Stewart and right-wing firebrand blogger Jennifer Rubin attacked the same target — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul — and for the same reason: whether Paul was flip-flopping on his support for Israel. Both criticized the Republican from Kentucky for advocating an end to foreign aid for Israel and then denying he was doing so.

For Stewart, this attack is predictable. For Rubin, it is a mistake.

The controversy erupted when, in response to a question about ending U.S. foreign aid to Israel, Paul said, “I haven't really proposed that in the past.” He continued with, “We've never had a legislative proposal to do that.” Democrats such as Stewart and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., jumped all over him, in large part because Paul was splitting hairs. There was a legislative proposal to end foreign aid, including to Israel, in his 2012 budget proposal. “I want to be known as a friend of Israel, but not with money we don't have,” Paul said in 2011. But the budget proposal wasn't specifically about defunding Israel.

Democrats want Paul known as a flip-flopper because he's a threat. Paul is going to run for president and as a senator, he has garnered a lot of attention from the media and normally securely Democrat voters — college students and blacks, to name two groups — for his positions on NSA spying and the need for criminal justice reform and fiscal sanity in Washington. And since polls consistently show the right is more solidly pro-Israel than the left, anytime Democrats can claim a Republican isn't pro-Israel, they will.

The bigger problem is when conservatives like Rubin attack Paul for some alleged pro-Israel heresy.

The reason is that debating the utility of foreign aid to Israel is actually a useful conversation. As the current war with Hamas demonstrates, supporting aid to Israel, as the Obama administration does, is not equal to a full-throated strategic alliance with the only democracy in the Middle East. As foreign-policy hawk Noah Pollak has conceded, “The experience of the Obama years has sharpened the perception among pro-Israel Americans that aid can cut against Israel by giving presidents with bad ideas more leverage than they would otherwise have.”

It is also true that what Democrats fear, a Rand Paul presidential candidacy, could bring voters to the GOP. As Bloomberg View columnist Ramesh Ponnuru explained in April, Republicans risk losing Paul's supporters at their peril. It could cost them the presidency, especially if libertarians support a Ralph Nader-type candidate instead. Ponnuru recommended Paul for vice president.

For his part, Paul has spent the better part of this year trying to build support among Jewish Republicans, among other GOP constituencies, in advance of his presidential run. And among Jews, he especially needs the support of big-money donors such as Sheldon Adelson, for their checkbooks and for a stamp of approval on his foreign policy. It is for this reason that Paul has been “evolving” about Israel aid. Whereas two years ago he wanted it all gone, today he says he would make sure Israel was last on the list to be defunded and he wants to be known as a vigorous ally of Israel in other ways. (He supported supplementary funding for Israel's Iron Dome.) Paul should be encouraged in his growing understanding and support for the Jewish state, and conservatives who love Israel should make it their business to keep him on the right path.

Abby W. Schachter, a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum, lives in Regent Square and blogs about the intersection of government policy and parenting at captainmommy.com.

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