Attendees at the Republican Jewish Coalition event in Washington on Wednesday might need to be checked for whiplash after a series of frontrunners for the GOP presidential nomination delivered a trio of wildly different presentations on the U.S. and its relationship with Israel.
The presentations of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, real estate billionaire Donald Trump and retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson pointed out the vast difference in foreign policy knowledge between the first-term senator, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the two men he’s been chasing in the polls for the past several months, neither of whom appears to have a firm grasp on the politics of the Middle East.
Rubio, speaking in one of the day’s early slots, delivered a detailed and well-received speech on the issues facing Israel, so much so that when he finished the moderator told the candidate that he had already answered most of his prepared questions.
But Rubio was followed later in the morning by Trump, whose remarks almost had the quality of a stand-up comedy routine, with jokes and asides aplenty but little of real substance. Carson, by contrast, read a set of prepared remarks that seemed almost like a report prepared for a history class.
Of the three, Rubio clearly came out of the gathering the strongest. He promised not to commit the U.S. to rolling back Israel’s borders to their pre-1967 state, and pledged to move the U.S. embassy from its current location in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a controversial point among those who support the Palestinian Arabs living in Israel, who also consider the city their true capital.
He criticized the Obama administration’s stance toward Israel, particularly the Iran nuclear deal the U.S. and other major world powers negotiated earlier this year, promising to undo any commitments made by the Obama administration.
“Let me be crystal clear: There is no moral equivalence between Israel and its enemies,” Rubio said. “Understanding that fundamental truth is essential to being the next commander in chief. This is not a real estate deal with two sides arguing over money. It’s a struggle to safeguard the future of Israel.”
Trump’s appearance was in many ways just plain strange. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, married a Jew and converted, and the billionaire’s grandchildren are Jewish. However, at times he seemed to play on stereotypes of Jewish people as hagglers.
“I’m a negotiator, like you folks,” he said early in his remarks. Later he asked, “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? ... Probably more than any room [where] I’ve ever spoken.”
Trump went on to insinuate that President Obama is somehow sympathetic to terrorist groups such as ISIS. “There’s something going on with him that we don’t know about,” he said ominously.
Trump opened his speech by declaring to applause that, “Obama is the worst thing that ever happened to Israel. The worst.”
However, he got bogged down in details. For example, when he was asked to name an Arab leader with whom he could work, he seemed befuddled for a moment before declaring that the King of Jordan “seems like a nice man.”
At one point, Trump was booed for refusing to state outright that he would not consent to a divided Jerusalem – meaning a city that both Israelis and Palestinians can claim as their capital.
Carson took the stage immediately after Trump and proceeded to read what amounted to a history of Israel to a room full of people who most likely already knew more about the topic than he did. The fact that he pronounced the name of the extremist group Hamas like the delicious, chick-pea-based dish “hummus” can’t have helped. Nor can the decision by the Carson campaign that he would take no questions, making him the only participant so far in the session to do so.