Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a fierce opponent of US foreign aid who is already being touted as a likely 2016 presidential candidate, said in Jerusalem on Monday that the United States is and always will be a friend of Israel, but he believes “it will be harder and harder to be a friend if we are out of money.”

“It will be harder to defend Israel if we destroy our country in the process,” Paul told the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies think tank. “I think there will be significant repercussions to running massive deficits.”

Paul, on his first-ever trip to Israel, a visit fueling speculation of a likely presidential campaign, said it would be one thing for the US to give foreign aid out of its own savings – which it no longer has – but it is something else entirely to have to borrow the money itself.

“To me it has always been about whether it makes sense for me to borrow money from China to give to Pakistan,” Paul said.

The senator, who has come under fire from some in the Jewish community for wanting to cut foreign aid, said he made a distinction between countries like Pakistan, Libya and Egypt, which don’t act like US allies, and Israel, which does.

He said he favored a gradual reduction of US foreign aid, which he said stands at approximately $30 billion a year.

About $3b. goes to Israel annually in military aid, 74 percent of which must be spent in the US.

“I’m all for gradualism,” he said. “I would start a little more quickly with those who are enemies of Israel, and enemies of the US. I would like to see their aid end more quickly. With regards to Israel, it could be a gradual phenomenon.”

Paul, who arrived in the country on Sunday, met Monday with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, and with other Israeli leaders and politicians, including Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett. He will travel to Jordan on Tuesday for meetings with King Abdullah II and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

No details were released on his conversation with Netanyahu, believed to be the first time the two have met.

During his speech in Jerusalem, Paul cited on two occasions Netanyahu’s 1996 speech to Congress in which the prime minister said Israel wanted to gradually wean itself of US aid.

Paul, who acknowledged that he will probably not see an end to foreign aid in his lifetime, said reduced aid to Jerusalem would actually be good for Israel, because it would boost its local defense industry and would also enhance the country’s independence and sovereignty.

Paul asked whether “our aid hampers Israel’s ability to make its own decisions as it sees fit,” and whether “our money sometimes clouds the sovereignty of Israel.”

The senator, whose father, Ron Paul, ran two unsuccessful Republican presidential bids and is viewed by some as holding anti-Israel positions, said he was often asked what Israel should do about the settlements, Gaza and Iran.

“Well, America should and does have an opinion on these things,” he said. “But ultimately these are decisions you have to make. I don’t think you need to call me on the phone and get permission to stop missiles raining down from Gaza.”

Paul said the US aid has led many in Israel to think “they have to call people in America for permission to defend itself.”

The senator said that he was concerned the US was trying to win friends in the region by providing them with arms, and that he was concerned that a situation could emerge in the future where Israel would have to face US-supplied tanks to Egypt.

Paul stressed he was not suggesting that the US disengage from Israel, or stop selling it arms. But, he said, these should be arms sales, not grants, which he characterized as a “one-way street.”

Regarding the argument that 74% of the military aid to Israel must be spent in the US and helps the US economy, Paul said the problem with that argument is that one industry – defense – is benefiting from taxes taken from 300 million people.

Paul was recently selected to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but declined to comment on the nomination of Chuck Hagel as new US defense secretary.

On Friday, shortly after Paul’s appointment to the committee, the National Jewish Democratic Council blasted the move, issuing a statement expressing “outrage” over the appointment “given his deeply disturbing record when it comes to the US-Israel relationship.”

According to the statement, Paul’s appointment to the committee “should be raising red flags and provoking severe concern across the pro-Israel community” because he has “repeatedly called for an end to US aid to Israel.”

“The overwhelmingly pro-Israel American public deserves much better than a radical ideologue on the Senate’s primary diplomatic committee who has demonstrated a singular obsession with slashing aid to the Jewish state,” the statement read.

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