GOP Candidates Affirm Their Support Of Israel

The GOP presidential contenders addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition Forum Wednesday. Lynn Neary talks to NPR's Ari Shapiro for more.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

We turn now to Washington and presidential politics. Most of the Republican presidential candidates were in town today, addressing a group of Jewish Republicans and affirming their support for Israel.

Here is former House speaker Newt Gingrich speaking this afternoon.

NEWT GINGRICH: In a Gingrich administration, the opening day, there will be an executive order about two hours after the inaugural address. We will send the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as of that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

NEARY: NPR's Ari Shapiro has been at the forum all day. He joins us now. Welcome, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: So what were the major themes of the speeches today?

SHAPIRO: Well, if I had to sum up the single message of this forum, it was: Israel, we Republicans love you more than President Obama does. Among Republican presidential candidates, it is an article of faith that the Obama White House has been too soft on the Palestinians, too hard on the Israelis. A few of the candidates used some version of the line: This president treats our friends like our enemies and our enemies like our friends.

The most recent incident they point to is something that happened over the weekend, with the U.S. ambassador to Belgium who said that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one reason for anti-Semitism. Now, the ambassador has expressed regret for that. The White House has backed away from those comments. But Newt Gingrich says the White House needs to fire the ambassador. Mitt Romney says they're throwing Israel under the bus.

And, you know, I should mention the White House strongly defends its record on Israel, saying - as President Obama put it at a fundraiser in New York last week - he said this administration has done more in terms of the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration.

But, at any rate, those are the battle lines and it's pretty clear which side this Republican Jewish crowd stance on.

NEARY: Well, what did the candidates say about how they would support Israel?

SHAPIRO: Well, you heard what Newt Gingrich said about moving the U.S. Embassy. Michele Bachmann later said she would do the same thing. Mitt Romney says the first foreign trip he would make as president would be to Israel. He contrasted that with President Obama. Here's what he said.

MITT ROMNEY: Yet in three years in office, he hasn't found the time or interest to visit Israel - our ally, our friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

SHAPIRO: You could hear there were some boos and hisses in the audience there. There was also former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who talked about a little tile from Israel that says: Pray For the Peace of Jerusalem. It hangs in his kitchen. He prays over it every day.

Former ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, talked about the work he did in Beijing to push sanctions against Iran. And Texas Governor Rick Perry talked about his many visits to Jerusalem over the last 20 years.

Actually, Iran came up a lot. And all of the candidates were very hawkish. They urged regime change. They said they would not hesitate to use military force. The Obama White House has not ruled out military force, but these candidates were much more emphatic about it.

The only candidate who has not taken these positions, in the Republican presidential field, is Ron Paul who has a libertarian view about a small military footprint. He has criticized American aid to Israel. And no surprise, he was not invited to this forum.

NEARY: Well, why is it so important for Republicans to address this group?

SHAPIRO: Well, you know, Jews are actually a very small portion of the American voting populace. And Jews overwhelmingly vote for Democrats - or at least they have in every past election, and looks like they're likely to do so as well in this election. But support for Israel is also an important litmus test for evangelical voters. And evangelicals could be hugely influential in the primary.

And looking ahead to the general election, even a small shift in Jewish votes from Democrats to Republicans could make a big difference in swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania. So this is an important crowd for the Republican presidential candidates.

NEARY: And obviously a crowd that is very critical of President Obama on Israel, on other foreign affairs. How widely held is that negative view?

SHAPIRO: Well, this is actually one area where President Obama does his best in polls. A recent Pew survey said that 75 percent of Americans approve of the way President Obama has handled foreign affairs. Forty-eight percent of Republicans approve; some of that has to do with the death of Osama bin Laden, the end of the war in Iraq.

You know, the U.S.-Israel relationship is not high on the list of most Americans' concerns. And even foreign affair is not at the top of the list of most Americans' concerns. Obviously that would be the economy and unemployment as the number one issue for most people.

But for this crowd of Jewish Republicans today, for many of them Israel is the number one issue. And the candidates did not disappoint in their statements of staunch, unwavering support.

NEARY: NPR's Ari Shapiro, thanks for being with us, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, Lynn.

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