It's important to learn how the 2024 Republican presidential candidates see Israel - opinion

Their declarations of their love of Israel may be true, but they’ve been around long enough that their views aren't going to persuade most Jewish voters to back them.

 CHRISTIANS UNITED for Israel holds a march to show solidarity with Israel, in Jerusalem, in 2008 (photo credit: ELIANA APONTE/REUTERS)
CHRISTIANS UNITED for Israel holds a march to show solidarity with Israel, in Jerusalem, in 2008

If you ever wondered whether there’s a difference between “good for Israel” and “good for the Jews,” just take a look at the field of Republicans running for president, officially and not yet.

Former president Donald Trump has been lauded for moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, helping negotiate the Abraham Accords, and bowing to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s urging to cancel the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Was that enough to excuse his history of antisemitic tropes, accusing American Jews of dual loyalty, calling Netanyahu “your prime minister” to a group of Jewish-American supporters, saying neo-Nazis and white supremacists may be “fine people,” and dining with Hitler’s fan club at Mar-a-Lago?

Who will be running for 2024 US Presidental campaign?

So far, he has only one announced rival for the 2024 GOP nomination, Nikki Haley. His former ambassador to the UN was a staunch defender of Israel during her two years in that job, winning her standing ovations before Jewish crowds. When she resigned, someone lamented that it left Israel with only one ambassador at the world body.

 REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL candidate and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley speaks after announcing her 2024 presidential campaign, in Urbandale, Iowa, last week.  (credit: SCOTT MORGAN/REUTERS) REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL candidate and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley speaks after announcing her 2024 presidential campaign, in Urbandale, Iowa, last week. (credit: SCOTT MORGAN/REUTERS)

But all indications are that Haley will veer sharply to the Right as she gears up for the GOP debates that kick off in August in Milwaukee, which means cultivating bedfellows who will set off alarm bells in the Jewish world.

Waiting to drop his own hat in the ring is Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former CIA director and secretary of state. He attributes his support for Israel to his Evangelical faith. He actually kicked off his 2024 campaign in 2020 with a speech to the GOP convention filmed in Jerusalem while on official business, a possible violation of campaign finance laws. 

He has declared Israel is not an occupier because Judea and Samaria, as he refers to the West Bank, are the “rightful homeland of the Jewish people.” What’s more, he said that the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is a “known terrorist.” He belittles Haley for “quitting” mid-term.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has little experience in foreign affairs compared to his rivals. Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition he said, “Judea and Samaria are not occupied, but disputed.” He will ramp up the rhetoric soon enough.

Former vice-president Mike Pence, another Evangelical Christian, has declared that “President Joe Biden has turned his back on Israel.” Pence told Christians United for Israel (CUFI): “My passion for Israel springs from my Christian faith.”

All profess an undying love for the Jewish state, but what about the Jewish people? Particularly American Jews whose votes they presumably want, to take them to the White House?

American Jews votes count

EVEN AS Israel’s popularity is tanking among Jews here, particularly as a result of the extreme-right government’s assault on the nation’s independent judiciary, that doesn’t seem to be much of an issue among Republican contenders and the Evangelical base that professes such ardent support for Israel.

CUFI claims to be the largest pro-Israel lobby, far bigger than AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. That helps explain why Netanyahu has said he considers Evangelical voters more important to Israel than American Jews, because they are more numerous and less demanding on issues like peace with the Palestinians and an independent judiciary.

Haley chose CUFI leader Pastor John Hagee to give the invocation at her announcement rally, saying “I want to be you when I grow up.” He was also picked by the White House to give the benediction at the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem in 2018. 

Pompeo, Pence and DeSantis are also courting Hagee’s support, something that the 2008 GOP presidential candidate, senator John McCain rejected when he learned of a Hagee sermon suggesting the Holocaust was part of God’s plan for the Jews to return to Israel, marking the biblical end of times.

And never mind that so much of the support of the Evangelical Zionists is based on biblical prophecies that predict a new Holocaust as an essential step toward the hoped-for second coming.

Hagee has a reputation as antisemitic, anti-Catholic, racist and homophobic. He has called Hitler a “half-breed Jew” and predicted that the Anti-Christ will be gay. The fact he may be homophobic shouldn’t be a problem for these candidates, although it would be for Jewish voters.

That’s only part of the problem. If they were looking for Jewish votes instead of just Jewish dollars, they’d understand Israel is a low priority for most American Jews, who – at least among the non-Orthodox majority – historically vote three-to-one Democratic, based on domestic issues, including the economy, health care, education, democracy, gun safety, Social Security and Medicare, critical social welfare programs and women’s rights.

Haley kicked off her campaign – she’s running in low single digits – calling for raising the age for Social Security eligibility and limiting Social Security and Medicare benefits for wealthier Americans. She bitterly attacked Biden’s call to keep or improve present benefits, and finance it by raising the tax on those earning more than $400,000 a year. That’s bound to repel Jewish voters.

Trump has said Republicans should keep their hands off those two programs. Haley isn’t listening; watch the others as they toss their hats in the ring. 

All are anti-abortion, some more stridently than others.

DeSantis is waging war on “wokism,” whatever that may be, with his anti-gay, anti-LGBTQ, anti-trans and anti-teaching-about-racism legislation, anti-so-much-more he’s been ramming through a rubber-stamp legislature. 

Haley contends he’s not going “far enough” with his “don’t say gay” policies. Not only should teachers be prohibited from talking about gender before the third grade, as DeSantis prefers, but she says any discussion should be delayed until after elementary school and then only with parental permission.

DeSantis’s drive to restrict what children may be taught and what books they may read is especially alarming for “the people of the Book.” Censorship, book bans, forbidden topics and threatening teacher tenure should be anathema to any intelligent person. 

Jews were “especially scornful” of Trump’s handling of environmental and immigration issues, a Pew Research study found, and his handling of Israel-related issues was “only fair” or “poor.” None of those seeking the GOP nomination next year has indicated they would be any different.

Their declarations of a great love of Israel may be sincere, learned in church, as Pompeo and Pence have attested, but they’ve been around long enough that their views and policies are not going to persuade most Jewish voters to back them. 

Since they all seem to want to weigh in on Israel, it’s also important to learn what these candidates see as the end game in the Middle East conflict. Do they see Israel having a long-term, secure and peaceful future as a Jewish state? Or do they buy into the common Evangelical belief that all the Jews of the world and the Jewish state are fated to be prophetic cannon fodder?

The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant and lobbyist, and a former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.