As he builds his national profile ahead of a potential run for the presidency in 2016, Sen. Rand Paul faces a central dilemma: How can he expand his appeal to a broader constituency without totally alienating his father’s energetic supporters? One issue that’s particularly difficult to bridge is America’s relationship with Israel. During his two runs for the White House, Ron Paul attracted passionate support for his foreign policy views. But those views – which included harsh criticism of Israel – also turned off a large portion of the staunchly pro-Israel GOP base. In 2011, I used the term “Zionist non-interventionism” to describe how Rand Paul was trying to thread the needle by making non-interventionist arguments and framing them as being beneficial to Israel. This approach continues to evolve.
Fresh off a visit to Israel, Paul held a conference call with reporters this afternoon to discuss his trip. In two key areas, Paul took a non-interventionist stance that he framed as pro-Israel.
Here’s a snippet of what he had to say about Obama’s criticisms of Jewish housing construction outside of Jerusalem, as reported by Slate’s Dave Weigel:
“One question is: If I’m the mayor of Jerusalem, or if I’m looking at places in the West Bank and settlements in the West Bank, obviously there’s either advisability or inadvisability with regard to ultimately finding places to build, whether it’s antagonistic or provocative,” said Paul. “Where I distinguish myself, though, is while there might be right or wrong answers to these questions, it’s not American politicians’ business to be dictating the answers. The answers need to come from the participants who live on the ground in these areas. I think it’s just presumptuous and arrogant of us to think, well, we’re going to go down to a roadmap of Jerusalem and decide where the neighborhoods can be expanded?”
Though other non-interventionists might attack Israeli construction, arguing it endangers America’s interests abroad by provoking the Arab and Muslim world, Paul is arguing that his non-interventionist views mean that he doesn’t give a toss where or when Israeli Jews choose to build homes.
On the question of gradually phasing out aid to Israel, Paul argues, “It’s really the presumption of whether we should be dictating to other countries — even if they are our friends — whether we should dictate every minute aspect of them building in their country. I think that’s wrong. But I think it’s also a reason you should want to become more and more independent, and not dependent on aid from the United States. Because then you can develop your sovereignty and be more definitive in the things you want.”
This echoes the position of rising right-wing Israeli politician Naftali Benett. Here’s what Bennett had to say about the aid issue earlier this month, as reported by the Jewish Press:
“Today, U.S. military aid is roughly 1 percent of Israel’s economy,” Bennett says. “I think, generally, we need to free ourselves from it. We have to do it responsibly, since I’m not aware of all the aspects of the budget, I don’t want to say ‘let’s just give it up,’ but our situation today is very different from what it was 20 and 30 years ago. Israel is much stronger, much wealthier, and we need to be independent.”
I know that some supporters of Israel are wary of Rand Paul given his father’s history. Though I’ve been a harsh critic of his father, I think it’s only fair to judge Rand Paul on the basis of his own statements and actions. It’ll be interesting to see if Paul’s high-wire act can stand the test of time, especially should his views become more fleshed out during a competitive presidential primary. One closer test will be whether he votes to confirm Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, an issue on which he has yet to take a position. But it’s hard to see how either a principled non-interventionist or a strong supporter of Israel could find serious fault with what Paul is saying here.
(Note: Some may point to instances in which Ron Paul made similar arguments. That’s true, but he also did things like go on Iranian state television to bash Israel, which Rand is not doing.)