When most of the GOP 2024 field speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition annual summit in Las Vegas this weekend, the No. 1 topic they will touch on is the continuing war between Israel and Hamas that has dominated international news and upended American politics.
Former President Donald Trump, the unequivocal front-runner in the race, will likely reiterate his support for Israel’s right to self-defense and call for implementing a “strong ideological screening of all immigrants,” as will most of the field. But he’ll also face criticisms from his rivals over controversial comments he made earlier this month when he claimed that the Iran-backed group Hezbollah was “very smart.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie‘s super PAC Tell It Like It Is already attacked Trump in an ad over the Hezbollah comments calling Trump a “fool.” The former governor also slammed Trump, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), and Vivek Ramaswamy for their alleged isolationist foreign policy stances in interviews this week.
The gathering in Nevada, a crucial early-voting state, will give the field another spotlight to differentiate themselves on the Israel-Hamas war. However, with Trump’s domination of the Republican Party, it’s unlikely that any subtle attacks from his rivals will dent his lead, though it won’t stop them from trying.
Woodrow Johnston, a Republican consultant based in Las Vegas, told the Washington Examiner that it is unlikely any candidate’s comments will dethrone Trump but former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley may further bolster her campaign in the aftermath of her speech.
“I think at this point if the Never Trumpers really want to beat Trump — I still don’t think they have a chance — but maybe Nikki Haley’s appearing to be kind of that person,” Johnston said, referring to her rise in polls over the past two months.
He also pointed to how the Ukraine-Russia war has complicated American funding for Israel’s battle against Hamas, which some GOP candidates will find hard to explain to the base. “Vivek was saying that we shouldn’t give as much aid to Israel. He either has to walk that back or at least show some nuance on this,” Johnston said. “And that’s just something that voters typically don’t understand, is nuance.”
Ramaswamy has been adamant that the United States doesn’t provide long-term financial aid or military involvement to Israel since even before the war broke out and has reiterated his stance in the aftermath. “I’m for U.S. diplomatic cover for Israel,” he recently said in a video post. “But if we’re talking about U.S. involvement, then we have to ask the questions about what are going to be the consequences of this longer potential ground presence in Gaza? Where does that lead? How does that get the U.S. involved?”
The Biden administration asked Congress last week for a $106 billion foreign aid bill that includes $14.3 billion in assistance to Israel and $61.4 billion to Ukraine. But the GOP field has not been impressed by the president’s handling of the crisis in the Middle East.
Haley has repeatedly slammed President Joe Biden’s “weak” leadership in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and negotiating a $6 billion prisoner exchange deal with Iran. Similarly, Trump claimed, “It was Joe Biden with his weakness and what he did with Iran and others that caused the attack on Israel,” during a campaign rally in Derry, New Hampshire, on Monday.
DeSantis, a top foe for Trump and Haley, has attacked Biden’s announcement of $100 million in humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza and the West Bank and challenged his competitors to denounce the aid. The governor has also touted the four rescue flights of nearly 700 Americans who were in Israel during the Oct. 7 surprise Hamas attack in which more than 1,400 people in Israel were killed.
Others, such as Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), pushed back against what he calls “Jewish genocide” in response to sympathetic Palestinian protests at colleges and universities. “When we have students on campuses that are actually encouraging Jewish genocide, who are advocating for murder and supporting terrorism, those students should be expelled from the campus,” Scott told Fox News. “And those folks who are on visas should be deported from our country. I stand by that without any question.”
The South Carolina senator championed previous legislation he supported in 2016 to eliminate antisemitism on college campuses. “Things have gotten worse, not better,” Scott continued. “Jewish students do not feel safe on their own campuses. That is a problem that we need to focus on. And my legislation helps us get there. And if I were president, I would simply sign the legislation that forces these universities and colleges to take back control of their college campuses.”
Similarly, Gov. Doug Burgum (R-ND) criticized antisemitic incidents on college campuses and called for a crackdown against the boycott, divestment, and sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel. “It’s clear that too many universities encourage anti-Israel sentiment on their campuses and many donors are now finally waking up to that fact,” he said. “As Governor, our administration has enacted anti-BDS legislation, and as president, I will continue supporting Israel and fighting against anti-Israel radicalism. Title 6 prohibits federal funding for any college or university that enables anti-Semitism. I will fully enforce this law.”
National Republican strategist Brian Seitchik told the Washington Examiner that an issue that concerns him and will likely be mentioned by the candidates during the summit is the split among Democrats over Israel.
“Support for Israel used to be bipartisan,” Seitchik said. “There is what feels like an even louder and virulent anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian contingent on the Democratic Left.”
There have been mounting tensions over members of the “Squad,” a group of progressive House lawmakers who have called for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and criticized Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes in the Gaza Strip. Conservative hard-liner Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) introduced a resolution to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib (R-MI), the only Palestinian American member of Congress, on Wednesday in the wake of Tlaib blaming Israel for a deadly airstrike against a Christian hospital in Gaza last week. U.S. intelligence claimed the airstrike likely came from a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket.
Seitchik said the tensions could be a problem for Biden with Muslim voters in Michigan, a key swing state needed to win his reelection bid. “The big question is how is the Hamas attack on Israel and then Israel’s impending full-throated response going to impact voters in Michigan?” he said. “Will those Muslim voters who were overwhelmingly for Biden — I don’t see them moving to become Trump voters — but will they turn out in November of 2024? What is going to be the resonance of this issue for those voters next year is certainly a key calculus that both Biden and Trump are certainly examining.”
Even Trump’s Hezbollah comments could have been the former president’s attempt to reach out to Muslim voters, Seitchik said. “As soon as I heard him say that, it felt like a play to capture some percentage of that Muslim Michigan vote, to some desire to squeeze just a little piece of that,” he added. “I do think it will cause some problems among Jewish voters and Jewish donors. I do think it could help him among some of those Muslim Americans in Michigan, but Trump’s going to fairly and accurately say that he has been the strongest supporter of Israel in the last 50 years, if not ever.”
As candidates such as former Vice President Mike Pence address the summit, Johnston, the Vegas GOP consultant, said it may be too late to recover and defeat Trump. “He’s not even part of the conversation really anymore,” Johnston said. “Take Ron DeSantis’s chances and multiply it by .0001. Honestly, if he is really concerned with beating Trump, he should do what Will Hurd did a few weeks ago and endorse Nikki Haley.”
Johnston likewise said DeSantis should drop out of the race and endorse Trump. “I don’t know what he could say to change the trajectory of his campaign. I don’t think there’s any one thing,” he added, contending that candidates like Scott were playing for Cabinet spots.
Ultimately, Johnston concluded, “Foreign policy is going to be probably a premier issue this upcoming election. And frankly, you take Trump’s foreign policy and you take Joe Biden’s foreign policy, and I think that’s an issue that Trump wins on.”