Back in November, I wrote that Rand Paul’s presidential hopes would be a difficult sale to pro-Israel conservatives and Republicans. Paul’s opposition to U.S. aid to Israel and an isolationist mindset that was highly reminiscent of the views of his extremist father, the former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, would seem to make his potential ascent in the GOP a troubling development for Jewish Republicans. While the exchange between us on the question of his attitude toward Israel may not have changed many minds, his recent trip to Israel is a clear indication that the Kentucky senator is serious about running for president.
Paul’s visit to the Jewish state was part of an effort to reposition himself as a friend of Israel, and there are some pro-Israel voices that seem inclined to take him at his word. There’s a lot to like about his criticism of President Obama’s attempts to dictate security policy to the Netanyahu government as well as the fact that he seems to be moving in the right direction on ties between the two countries. Yet it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that anyone inclined to buy into the idea that he should be thought of as a reliable friend of Israel is acting like a very cheap date for the presidential wannabe. Rand Paul may not exactly be a chip off the old block when it comes to the expressions of hostility and willingness to demonize Israel. But his positions on aid and, even more importantly, on broader foreign policy concepts are still far away from anything that the pro-Israel community would recognize as acceptable.
As the Jerusalem Post reported last weekend, Paul criticized President Obama’s statements about the building of new Jewish homes in Jerusalem. Saying Israel’s policy was “none of our business,” the senator also made it clear that “I came here to show that I am supportive of the relationship between Israel and America.” As Seth Lipsky wrote in the New York Post on Sunday, Paul’s stand is noteworthy:
There hasn’t been such a supportive comment on Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and in Jerusalem since Sarah Palin last spoke on the subject. Her comments drove the left up the wall.
Lipsky is right and that’s very much to Paul’s credit. But it should also be understood that his “let the Israelis decide things for themselves” stand comes in the context of a longstanding position that treats everything that happens in the Middle East as being none of America’s business. So while his expressions of friendship are welcome and far more acceptable than the sort of stuff we had come to expect from his father, it’s difficult to argue that a person who has never believed the U.S. has vital interests in the region is the sort who can be relied upon to have Israel’s back in a crisis.
Paul also seeks, as he did in our exchange, to spin his position opposing aid to Israel as not synonymous with hostility. It is true that, as he argues, Prime Minister Netanyahu told Congress back in 1996 that he wanted to phase out U.S. aid. But Netanyahu was referring to economic assistance, not military aid. In fact, Netanyahu’s goal of eliminating economic aid has already been accomplished. For years, Israel has only gotten military aid. But Paul still wants to cut it–although he now says he wants to do it gradually and that countries that burn our flag rather than friends like Israel should get the axe first.
Israel is better off without having its economy subsidized by foreign friends, but in a region where oil money helps fuel an arms race with the nation’s foes, American assistance is vital. Paul told the Washington Post that he admires the Iron Dome anti-missile system that helped save Israeli lives during the recent fighting with Hamas and would even like to see the U.S. develop its own version. But does he think Iron Dome would have been built without extensive U.S. support from both the Bush and Obama administrations? Israel’s ability to act independently in its own interests would be enhanced if it didn’t have to rely to some degree on its one true ally. But the fact remains that American military aid remains necessary to ensure the country’s security. If you don’t get that, then you don’t get the alliance.
It is possible to argue that what we are witnessing with Rand Paul is similar to the process whereby a once-hostile figure like the late Jesse Helms eventually became a devoted friend to Israel in the latter half of his senatorial career. If so, then it may be that Paul will become a bridge between the pro-Israel community and libertarians and will help the latter understand that backing the Jewish state is a natural fit for those who believe in the cause of liberty. If his position continues to evolve, it may actually be possible for him to run in 2016 as an ardent backer of Israel even though some will always see him as his extremist father’s son.
But it is just as possible that Rand Paul’s odyssey to Israel and outreach effort to pro-Israel conservatives is analogous to Barack Obama’s path in the years before he was elected president. Obama had few ties with pro-Israel groups, and was known as the friend of pro-Palestinian activists and other radicals. But with the help of some in the Jewish community, he worked hard to change his image. He, too, said it was all a misunderstanding to see him as anything but a friend to Israel, albeit one that didn’t like the views of the Likud. Those who vouched for his pro-Israel bona fides have had a lot of explaining to do during his presidency.
Those who are allowing themselves to play that same role for Rand Paul need to think long and hard not just about being cheap dates but about the likelihood that the candidate whose positions they are rationalizing may have a very different agenda if he ever got into the White House.