Fourteen GOP presidential candidates gathered in Washington on Thursday for a forum hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition, where speakers so far have played up their support for Israel and opposition to terrorism while taking a few jabs at each other’s positions along the way.
There were also plenty of odd moments throughout the day. Donald Trump earned a mix of laughter, boos and applause throughout a speech and a Q&A session that at times flirted with stereotypes about Jews as wealthy deal-makers and, at other times, antagonized the crowd over key issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I’m a negotiator, like you folks,” Trump told the audience. ”Is there anybody that doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room?” he asked later on. “This room negotiates them perhaps more than any other room I’ve ever spoken in.”
Dr. Ben Carson, facing criticism over his weak foreign policy credentials, listlessly read from a prepared speech that often sounded like a school report on Israeli history. He repeatedly mispronounced “Hamas,” the radical Islamic group that controls the Gaza Strip.Others doled out thick dollops of old-fashioned pandering. Ohio Gov. John Kasich recounted how his mother told him “if you want to look for a really good friend, get somebody who’s Jewish,” because they were especially loyal.
“Last night I was watching Schindler’s List,” former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore said. “Everybody here has seen Schindler’s List.”
Looming over the event was the San Bernardino, California, shooting, in which two suspected attackers, a husband and wife, killed 14 people before dying in a shootout with police. Senator Ted Cruz opened the event with a moment of silence for the victims and, while he cautioned that the details of the attack were still unknown, he said it raised concerns of “yet another manifestation of terrorism, radical Islamic terrorism here at home.” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said he had “convinced” the shooting was terrorism while Senator Marco Rubio said the details were “concerning.” Authorities are still investigating the motive.
Trump said the attack was “probably” related to “radical Islamic terrorism” and suggested Obama may have hidden motives in declining to use the term.
“There’s something going on with him that we don’t know about,” Trump said.
In addition to being grilled by Jewish leaders and activists, the event was a chance to show off in front of some of the party’s top donors. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who spent at least $93 million on super PACs supporting Republicans in 2012, is a prominent RJC board member and already hosted a similar forum at his casino in Las Vegas in April. Adelson, who is active in hawkish pro-Israel causes, is currently unaligned in the GOP race. Another RJC board member, billionaire investor Paul Singer, endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio in October.
“You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” Trump told the crowd.
In April, the Iran nuclear deal – which RJC members generally opposed in strong terms – was the biggest topic. This time the Paris attacks and the persistent threat of ISIS both within the Middle East and beyond are dominating the news as well as the ongoing investigation into Wednesday’s San Bernardino shooting.
Candidates devoted significant time to all of the above while generally pledging to strengthen ties with Israel. Rubio and Cruz each pledged to rip up the Iran deal immediately upon taking office. Rubio and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush promised to speak out against the BDS movement, which seeks to pressure institutions like universities to boycott and divest from Israel. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, going farther than the rest of the field, said he opposed a peace deal to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. “There can be no two states,” he said.
Several candidates said they would move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which the last several administrations have avoided. Trump, however, drew intense boos from the audience when he refused to answer whether Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, saying he wanted to talk to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before taking a position.
“It was the Trump Tower of Babel,” Anne Emily Caplin, a Rubio supporter from New Hampshire, told MSNBC after his speech.
There was also some jostling between candidates over domestic and foreign policy differences.
Christie criticized rivals like Cruz and Trump who supported controls on NSA surveillance of phone records, arguing that the failure to detect the Paris attacks showed the need for more intense intelligence gathering.
“You think these guys got together 15 minutes before the attack at a Taco Bell and planned that?” Christie said.Cruz, without naming Rubio, underscored a key difference in their foreign policy he’s highlighted recently over the costs and benefits of ousting dictators in countries like Libya, Egypt and Syria. Cruz argued that such interventions, military or diplomatic, created vacuums filled by fundamentalist Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (subsequently deposed in a coup), and the lslamic State in Libya and Syria. Rubio supported military intervention in Libya and has called for the ouster of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
“If we are to defeat our enemies we need to be clear eyed that toppling a government and allowing radical Islamic terrorists to take over a nation is not benefiting our national security,” Cruz said.
Rubio rebutted Cruz during his own appearance, calling his rival’s proposal to leave Assad in power ”a fundamental and simplistic and dangerous misunderstanding of the region.”
He also took issue with Trump’s comment this week that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal depended in part on “whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things” if he’s elected president.
Despite the traditional Democratic advantage, Republicans believe Obama’s tense relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran and the Palestinian peace process gives them an opening to cut the margin.