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Rand Paul to Jewish leaders in NYC: 'I am not an isolationist'

Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul attempted to make inroads with the Jewish community in New York on MondaY.

Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul tried to make inroads with the Jewish community in New York on Monday but found himself being peppered with questions about some of his foreign policy views.

“I am not an isolationist,” the Kentucky senator said in response to a question. “I am somebody who believes that war is the last resort and when we use it, we use it reflectively and we use it to win, but we can’t really stay everywhere around the world and create democracies in our own image.” 

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Paul was in Brooklyn to meet with approximately 30 Jewish community leaders at the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools Headquarters.

Paul, who in the past has dismissed as overblown threats posed by Iran and others toward Israel, pledged his support for the Jewish State. But he did offer several examples of when he believed America’s interventionism in the region had gone too far — lashing out at in particular at Hillary Clinton, the former secretary state now running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“Hillary’s war in Libya is, was and continues to be an utter disaster,” said Paul, referring to U.S. military support for opposition forces that overthrew dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Paul said Gadhafi hadn't been a “good guy but he has suppressed radical Islam. Now that Gadhafi is gone, the country is in civil war.”

Paul also said it had been a “mistake” for the U.S. under President George W. Bush to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Paul said Hussein had been a “bulwark against Iran” and said Iran is now “twice as strong" as it was before the Iraq War.

But Paul insisted he supports military action to combat the terrorist group known as ISIS — but by American allies, not U.S. boots on the ground. 

Earlier in the day, Paul made news when he defended an Obama administration drone strike that accidentally killed two hostages in Pakistan. Paul, who has previously called for the U.S. to curtail its drone policy, said he believed Obama was "trying to do the right thing."

Paul's foreign policy views are under particular scrutiny now that he's on the presidential stage. His cautious, near-isolationist stance once largely mirrored that of his father, libertarian hero Ron Paul, who ran for the GOP nomination in 2008 and 2012. But those views got tougher to defend for the younger Paul when he came to Washington in 2011 and began eyeing a run for the GOP nomination in 2016— and that's particularly true when it comes to Israel.

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In 2011, Paul created a stir when he proposed getting rid of foreign assistance altogether, including aid to Israel, funds which make up a big part of that nation's budget. Last year, he relented a bit, saying he supports U.S. aid to Israel in the short term. Paul did receive praise from the community when he backed a bill earlier this year (shortly before meeting with mega Jewish Republican donors, including Sheldon Adelson) to end aid to Palestine until officials recognize the state of Israel.

Paul. who made his first visit to Israel this year, has since tried to show that he's no dove when it comes to foreign policy. 

At the event in Brooklyn, one Jewish leader said had initially he believed the senator was an anti-Semite. Calling the issue “the elephant in the room,” he asked how Paul overcomes that perception in trying to win over voters. This same Jewish leader made clear that once he got to know Paul, he liked him and no longer thought he had any hostility toward Jews.

“We don’t see it as much of a problem as it might have been two or three years ago before people knew me," Paul said of his stance toward Israel. "All I can do is keep saying what I believe in,” he added, calling Israel one of America’s “best allies and best friends around the world.” 

Paul’s stop in Brooklyn comes just days after his potential GOP rival, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, visited The Ramaz School, an orthodox Jewish day school, to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.  Bush has come under fire by some for not immediately coming out against his foreign policy adviser James A. Baker, who was critical of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Paul was received well by several in attendance on Monday, but several said they weren’t 100% committed to his presidential bid just yet. 

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Joseph B. Stamm, president of Med Review Inc., said what was clear from the discussion is “there’s an image [Paul] has to fight” but that he wouldn’t rule Paul out. Stamm added, “I think as he goes around the country and presents his views, I think people will have a much different view of the senator … I agree that we shouldn’t be the ones to be fighting wars all over the world. And I’ve also felt that Israel must become independent of the United States. That’s how the senator feels and I believe him.” 

Josh Rubenstein, a 38-year-old real estate developer who also runs Jewish community programs, said he liked Paul’s stance on Israel, calling him a “great contender for the presidency.” Rubenstein said he does have some concern that the senator has the same views as his more controversial father.

“I think he has proven himself to be a different person. We’re just hoping that comes out more and more,” said Rubenstein, adding that he hasn’t committed to one particular candidate.