Although the 2016 presidential election is still a long way off, prospective candidates are already testing the waters for possible presidential bids—primarily candidates considering running in the currently wide-open Republican race. Thus when Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), one of the most visible potential contenders in 2016, said that he had never proposed to cut foreign aid to Israel, many in the pro-Israel community took notice.
“I’ve never said oh my goodness! Let’s target aid to Israel…I said you know what, to get to an ultimate goal maybe we should start by eliminating aid to countries that hate us, countries that burn our flag. I’ve been very up front to acknowledge that Israel isn’t one of the countries. Israel is our friend. I have never had a bill that had Israel’s name in it to eliminate aid to Israel,” Paul told an audience at the Campbellsville Chamber of Commerce in Kentucky Monday, reported the local news channel WBKO.
Paul also defended his previous record on funding to Israel to Yahoo News political reporter Chris Moody on Aug. 4.
“We’ve never had a legislative proposal to do that…Israel has always been a strong ally of ours and I appreciate that. I voted just this week to give money — more money — to the Iron Dome, so don’t mischaracterize my position on Israel,” he added.
Shortly after Paul’s comment to Moody, his office doubled down on the statement, saying: “Sen. Rand Paul has never proposed any legislation that targeted Israel’s aid and just last week voted to continue and increase funding to the State of Israel. Sen. Paul is a strong supporter of the Jewish state of Israel.”
“I think he has, in his own words, a new appreciation of the true security needs of Israel and I don’t think there’s any issue about him voting against any specific military aid to Israel,” said Texas businessman and Republican activist Fred Zeidman, who has met with Paul to discuss his stance on Israel, among other important campaign issues.
But critics such as Moody have pointed out that Paul’s proposal in his first year as senator in 2011 to balance the U.S. federal budget did call for a cut to foreign aid entirely. Though the proposal did not specifically “target” Israel, it did not also exclude the country from this cut to aid.
The other claim by Paul and his staff that he had voted in favor of emergency funding of $225 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system does ignore the fact that senators often pass legislation without resorting to the time-consuming roll call vote. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) had asked if there are any objections to passing the bill, and Paul merely did not object.
Democrats have quickly seized on Paul’s recent flip-flop on the issue, particularly since he had defended his earlier position when being interviewed on national television.
“I have a lot of sympathy and respect for Israel as a democratic nation, as a fountain of peace and a fountain of democracy within the Middle East,” Paul told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in a Jan. 2011 interview. “But at the same time, I don’t think funding both sides of the arms race, particularly when we have to borrow the money from China to send it to someone else. We just can’t do it anymore. The debt is all-consuming and it threatens our well-being as a country.”
Paul made a similar argument to ABC’s Jonathan Karl, though qualifying his statement by noting that he was not singling out Israel. “I support Israel. I want to be known as a friend of Israel, but not with money you don’t have,” he said.
But Paul’s camp is continuing to stand by his new rhetoric by pointing out that Paul’s more recent budget proposals do include Israel funding. The newest statement from Paul’s office said that “in 2011, Sen. Paul proposed a budget resolution that did not include certain foreign assistance programs in an effort to balance the budget in five years” but that “subsequent budget proposals made by Sen. Paul have included up to $5 billion for foreign assistance to account for U.S.-Israel security interests.”
Recently the National Journal reported that Paul has also been courting prominent Jewish conservatives in an effort to distance himself from the rhetoric of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), who had railed against U.S. involvement in the Middle East and against the Israeli lobby.
Israel “wasn’t an issue that he had focused on before,” Zeidman said. However, the younger Paul did visit Israel in January 2013.
“I [don’t] think now that he has spent a lot more time trying to understand that issue, we’ll have a problem with regard to Israel,” Zeidman said.