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Rand Paul and Israel: An Exchange

Last week, I wrote about the potential impact that the growing influence of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul will have on the ability of Republicans to portray themselves as a solidly pro-Israel party. Senator Paul has written to respond to that piece. My response follows.

Jonathan S. Tobin’s Nov. 9 column, “Will Rand Paul Hijack the Pro-Israel GOP?” makes some wildly speculative assumptions about me, my positions concerning our ally, Israel, and the Republican Party’s future. Since Mr. Tobin took it upon himself to image some of my positions, I thought it best to set the record straight by stating what they actually are.

Israel is a strong and important ally of the United States, and we share many mutual security interests. I believe we should stand by our ally, but where I think sometimes American commentators get confused is that I do not think Israel should be dictated to by the United States. I think that has happened too often, and it has been to the detriment of Israel. Too often we have coerced Israel into trading land for peace, or other false bargains. When President Obama stood before the world in 2011 to demand that Israel act against her own strategic interest, I denounced this as unnecessary meddling. As I wrote in May of that year: “For President Obama to stand up today and insist that Israel should once again give up land, security and sovereignty for the possibility of peace shows an arrogance that is unmatched even in our rich history of foreign policy.”

Israel will always know what’s best for Israel. The United States should always stand with its friends. But we should also know, unlike President Obama, when to stay out of the way.

Foreign aid is another example of how our meddling often hurts more than its helps. In my proposals to end or cut back on foreign aid, some have made accusations that my proposals would hurt Israel. Actually, not following my proposals hurt Israel. We currently give about $4 billion annually to Israel in foreign aid. But we give about $6 billion to the nations that surround Israel, many of them antagonistic toward the Jewish state.

Giving twice as much foreign aid to Israel’s enemies simply does not make sense. Our aid to Israel has always been to a country that has been an unequivocal ally. Our aid to its neighbors has purchased their temporary loyalty at best.

These countries are not our true allies and no amount of money will make them so. They are not allies of Israel and I fear one day our money and military arms that we have paid for will be used against Israel.

Mr. Tobin speculates that calls by me and others within the Republican Party for Pentagon cuts somehow would hurt our national defense. It is always sad to see conservatives making liberal arguments. Cutting waste in our military would no more hurt our defense than getting rid of No Child Left Behind would hurt education. Every government agency can withstand a little belt-tightening, especially if we scale back on our overseas presence and focus more on true defense and security.

I voted against the original sequester agreement last year. It amused me to watch many of my colleagues who vote for it now wringing their hands over what they’ve wrought. The problem is, if we don’t keep these cuts, where will they come from? My colleagues have shown no greater stomach for domestic cuts than military ones. And with a now $16 trillion national debt and annual deficits between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion, the supposed grown-ups in Washington need to man-up and figure out where to cut. An automatic cut that would disproportionately target military spending was no one’s first choice—but was also the direct result of not enough people getting specific or serious about cuts to begin with.

I am not one of those people. I proposed a fully balanced five-year budget that restored the sequester funds. That path is still open to all Senators so concerned about our defense spending.

But absent the equivalent cuts from elsewhere, I cannot support simply scrapping the sequester.

That’s because the cuts really aren’t that big of a problem, if we also include reform.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and I are now both calling for legislation to audit the Pentagon, believing that a federal department with zero oversight is a good place to start when targeting government waste. We are not the only Republicans to make this observation and I suspect that number will continue to grow. The age of austerity will require as much common sense as possible.

Mr. Tobin is right to note that these are questions that a Republican Party serious about limited government and fiscal responsibility will continue to ask moving forward. But it is absurd to suggest that conservatives who ask these questions are somehow for a weaker defense, or worse, somehow stand on the wrong side of our friend Israel.

Portraying me as being against Israel in any fashion, as Mr. Tobin’s title implies, is as nonfactual as it is offensive. There are many differing opinions about both foreign and domestic policy within Israel. Any healthy, self-governing people necessarily must have robust debate. This is as true in Israel as it is in the United States. The notion that there is an unassailable consensus concerning Israel’s best interests, within the Republican Party, the United States, and even Israel itself, is simple not true and never has been. It assumes too much and asks too little, to the detriment of both countries.

Israel has long been, and will continue to be, one of our greatest allies. I will always fight to maintain the health and strength of this relationship, just as I will always fight for the health, security and best interests of the United States.

Senator Rand Paul, Washington, D.C.

 

Jonathan Tobin Responds:

In a world full of foes of the state of Israel, far be it from me to reject the wish of any prominent politician to be depicted as a friend of the Jewish state. It may be reasonable to suspect that this desire may have more to do with the senator’s possible presidential ambitions (indeed, the fact that he should take the trouble to defend his record on Israel in COMMENTARY can fairly be construed as a clear indication of his plans) but it is welcome nonetheless. However, his record is a little more complicated than he indicates. While the senator may not be as reflexively hostile to Israel as his father Ron or many of their extremist libertarian fans, it is difficult to reconcile his positions on assistance to Israel or his constricted ideas about the role of America in the world with one that is readily identified as supportive of a strong and secure Israel.

First, let’s give Senator Paul credit for saying that Israel ought not to be pressured into making concessions to its antagonists. Paul criticized President Obama for his ambush of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May 2011 over the 1967 lines. But it should also be pointed out that Paul was conspicuous by his absence from Netanyahu’s address to Congress that earned bipartisan ovations.

Let’s also specify that the senator is right when he notes that at this point in time, Israel would do well to wean itself from any from of foreign assistance. That is a goal that was first articulated by Prime Minister Netanyahu in 1996 during an address to Congress. But when Netanyahu made that speech, Israel was getting as much economic aid as it was military help. That is no longer the case.

When Paul called for an end to “welfare” to Israel, he said that the country’s relative wealth ought to render it ineligible for aid. But almost all the assistance Israel gets nowadays is necessary to redress the imbalance in strength between the Jewish state and the entire Arab and Muslim world that is arrayed against it. Though Paul would accompany an end to military aid to Israel with a ban on assistance to any country that is hostile to it, that wouldn’t undo the harm that a stoppage from the country’s only military ally would cause to a nation that is forced to spend exorbitant amounts on defense in order to cope with foes supported by Iran and even Russia. Nor would it offset the encouragement that such a measure would give Israel’s enemies.

Paul’s position ignores the fact that most of the military assistance is spent right here in the United States. But his willingness to characterize the issue as one in which American kids are being asked to go into debt to pay for “rich” Israel showed his willingness to play the same isolationist cards that won his father the applause of a radical fringe.

But just as troubling are Paul’s positions on U.S. defense and foreign policy, irrespective of the warm feelings he says he harbors for Israel.

An essential part of the U.S.-Israel alliance is the assumption that the United States will maintain its military strength as well as be willing to act to defend its interests abroad. Paul’s isolationist wing of the party acts as if America can afford to more or less withdraw its forces to its own borders and ignore the rest of the world. Paul pretends that the draconian cuts he advocates will not materially affect America’s defense capabilities, but that is mere rhetoric. Just as it would be impossible for the United States to assert its influence abroad in ways that are important to making Israel safer, so, too, will a diminished U.S. military undermine the strategic balance in the region in a way that will hurt it.

It is no small thing that the putative leader of a faction of the Republican Party that is virulently isolationist should wish to be seen as a friend of Israel. But he has a long way to go before his positions can be considered particularly supportive of Israel or the sort of American foreign policy stance that is consistent with maintaining the alliance. Barring an unexpected change of heart, Senator Paul’s higher profile must be considered bad news for Jewish Republicans.



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