Basking in the Spotlight on Israel, GOP Hopefuls Storm the Holy Land

Within days of the Gaza cease-fire, Mike Pompeo, Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham flew to Israel and Nikki Haley is about to arrive, all vying to show solidarity and throw mud at the Democrats’ policy in the Middle East

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Nikki Haley: 'The air in Jerusalem brings clarity'
Nikki Haley: 'The air in Jerusalem brings clarity' (photo from AIPAC conference in 2019)Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

The imminent arrival of Nikki Haley this weekend is just the latest evidence of what has become a trend: prominent Republicans, particularly those eyeing the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, suddenly deciding to pay a visit to Israel.

Since the latest bout of fighting between Israel and Hamas ended last month, the country has become a hot destination for high-profile Republicans who launched White House bids in the past or are considering them in the future.

Israel has emerged from the pandemic, shedding the last of its coronavirus-related restrictions, but there are still stern rules in place about foreign visitors. U.S. politicians coming to show support appear to easily clear the bar for entrance, however.

Though the conflict is over, the international media spotlight remains fixed on Israel and the visits enable the presidential hopefuls to bask in that spotlight as they flex their foreign policy muscles. Pledges of unconditional support for Israel in meetings with leaders, visits to Israeli homes hit by Hamas rockets and attacks on “radical” Democrats for criticizing Israeli behavior in the 11-day Gaza conflict are designed to impress both the Christian evangelical base and deep-pocketed, pro-Israel donors.

While none of the GOP hopefuls dare to formally launch an exploratory committee to build a real war chest before former President Donald Trump signals whether he is preparing to run, the race to line up support is already on.

“Anybody in the GOP with presidential ambitions would be smart to show their commitment to a strong and secure Israel right now, especially with the policies advocated by the Biden administration and other leading Democrats, which most supporters of Israel believe put the country in a weaker, less secure position,” said Abe Katsman, counsel for Republicans Overseas Israel.

The appearance of support

“Having Israel’s back” at a time when progressive Democrats and other critics have sharply criticized Israel over Gaza will likely give these visitors a boost with pro-Israel Republican constituencies, with American Jews find themselves in increased peril from antisemitism and the Biden administration “running headlong not only into a terrible Iranian nuclear deal, but away from the Abraham Accords and the budding alliance between Israel and the Gulf states aiming to contain Iranian regional aggression,” Katsman said.

Most U.S. Jewish voters may be Democrat, and the key constituency these Republicans are eyeing are pro-Israel evangelicals. However, the Jewish vote shouldn’t be counted out in key Republican primary battles, said E.J. Dionne Jr., a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a veteran Washington Post political columnist.

“Orthodox Jews have become a Republican constituency since the 2004 presidential election, and there are economically conservative Jews. At least a quarter of American Jews vote Republican and that’s not a trivial constituency in important primaries,” he said.

The GOP visits on the eve of Israel’s political transition are also their last chance for a photo op with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli politician most admired by Israel’s American supporters, before he is downgraded to opposition leader.

Haley, former U.S. representative to the United Nations and governor of South Carolina, will be the first to arrive after the announcement that the vote on a new government will take place next Sunday. She could well be the first to pair a meeting with the outgoing prime minister with meeting his successor-in-waiting, Naftali Bennett, and the country’s soon-to-be Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (barring last-minute hitches before the new government is sworn in).

Haley’s visit was announced by the powerful Christian evangelical lobby group planning to bring her here: Christians United for Israel. Her host and tour guide will be Pastor John Hagee, who awarded her with a “Defender of Israel Prize” in 2018.

Haley’s White House aspirations are no secret. Like other GOP 2024 hopefuls, Haley, 49, is crisscrossing the U.S. under the auspices of her organization Stand For America, raising money for 2022 House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates. Meanwhile, her Twitter feed gives her followers a consistent diet of conservative red meat, primarily hitting hard against China and transgender athletes.

On Sunday, the day her Israel trip was announced, she tweeted about the discovery of a “terror tunnel” running underneath an United Nations Relief and Works Agency school in Gaza.

'Another Hamas tunnel' - Nikki HaleyCredit: Twitter

“Hamas doesn’t care about protecting its civilians, it only cares about killing Israel’s,” she wrote, criticizing Rep. Ilhan Omar for comparing Israel’s behavior with that of Hamas and the Taliban.

Haley is already believed to potentially be the favored GOP candidate by at least one powerful Republican donor with deep pockets. In 2019, she was invited by Miriam Adelson to give the keynote address at a conference organized by Israel Hayom, the newspaper Adelson’s late husband Sheldon founded, and later named her publisher. There, in an on-stage interview, Adelson asked Haley straight out: “Is there a chance that here, now, in Jerusalem, you will announce you are running for president in 2024?”

Miriam Adelson in 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

Haley’s cagey response: “The air in Jerusalem brings clarity,” adding: “2024 is a long way away.”

It’s still far away, but less so. It therefore hardly seems a coincidence that Haley is making another visit on the heels of one of her biggest competitors for the GOP nod, particularly when it comes to racking up evangelical support.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo showed up in Israel over Memorial Day weekend, mere days after the conclusion of the confrontation between Israel and Hamas. (That same week, his successor, Antony Blinken, made his first trip to Israel to tie up the loose ends of the cease-fire agreement.)

The stated purpose of Pompeo’s visit was to fete Yossi Cohen, the outgoing head of the Mossad, by making an appearance at his retirement party. Pompeo tweeted from Tel Aviv on May 30 from the home of “good friends,” and a day later posted photos from the Jerusalem home of former U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman, complimenting his pomegranate trees.

Pompeo was also photographed praying at the Western Wall and touring the tunnels alongside Friedman.

Pompeo at the Western WallCredit: Twitter

Shadow opposition

Gregg Roman, director of the conservative think tank Middle East Forum, said he sees the goals of Pompeo and Haley’s visits as extending beyond simply testing the waters for a presidential race.

“As the highest-ranking former U.S. diplomats in the Trump administration, they are defending the policies they put in place under Trump at a time when their legacies are now being undone by the Democrats,” he said.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo showed up in Israel over Memorial Day weekendCredit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

If anything, in regard to Israel and on other foreign policy matters, they’re behaving like U.K.-style shadow opposition to the Biden administration, Roman said. Pompeo “traveling to Israel on the heels of Tony Blinken reminded the world there are alternative approaches to what Blinken and Biden are offering,” he explained. The visits are designed to stress to Americans and Israelis “that there is solid Republican support for the Jewish state even in times when it doesn’t have that kind of support in the current administration,” he added.

Pompeo wasn’t the only visitor over the Memorial Day weekend. Three prominent U.S. senators also landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport, two of whom – Ted Cruz from Texas and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham – vied for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination before Trump systematically crushed his competition.

Cruz visits IsraelCredit: Twitter

Cruz said the purpose of his Israel visit, with Tennessee Sen. Bill Hagerty, was “to hear and see firsthand what our Israeli allies need to defend themselves, and to show the international community that we stand unequivocally with Israel.”

During his visit, Cruz tweeted nonstop in support of Israel and lashing out at “radical” congressional Democrats who criticized the conduct of the Jewish state in the Gaza conflict. His social media feeds were filled with photographs and videos of himself in homes damaged and destroyed by Hamas rockets, which he described as “heartbreaking.”

In an interview with the Associated Press, Cruz accused President Biden of “emboldening” Israel’s enemies, saying, “The longer Joe Biden shows weakness to Hamas or Hezbollah or Iran, the more you’re going to see terrorist attacks escalating. ... Appeasing terrorists doesn’t bring peace.”

Cruz and Hagerty filmed the requisite video alongside Netanyahu, in which Cruz turned to the Israeli leader, saying that he had come to “state unequivocally that the United States stands with Israel.”

Netanyahu gave equal time to Graham, who hammered the message of his visit home by holding up a sign during the two leaders’ photo op that read “More for Israel” in both English and Hebrew. Graham is currently pushing for maximal military aid from the United States to Israel, including $1 billion to replenish and upgrade the Iron Dome system.

Flanking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: on left, Ted Cruz; and Bill Hagerty, on a joint visit to IsraelCredit: חיים צח / לעמ

“The more Hamas tries to destroy Israel, the more Iran tries to destroy Israel,” Graham declared in a video filmed en route to visit Ashkelon, “the more aid the United States will provide to Israel to defend herself.”

Netanyahu expressed his appreciation in their meeting. “No one has done more for Israel than you, Sen. Lindsey Graham,” he said in a video Graham posted on social media. “You’re a stalwart champion of our alliance.”

Graham visits IsraelCredit: Twitter

While Graham is viewed as being less likely interested in a future White House run than the other three visitors, Cruz, 50, clearly still harbors ambitions for higher office, Roman said. Graham “had his shot at the presidency, and it’s over. I think he’s doing his job as a senator right now,” he said.

Dionne also distinguishes Graham, 65, from his younger counterparts when it comes to Israel. A longtime conservative hawk, his support of substantive political and financial support of the Jewish state stems from Cold War-era investment in Israel as a crucial strategic U.S. ally – a position that predates Trump and the surge of pro-Israel evangelical sentiment in the GOP.

Between meetings and briefings with political and military officials and visits to rocket-scarred homes, during his stay Graham appeared to be enjoying watching the political developments unfold as Netanyahu battled for political survival and a new government began to take shape. “If you like politics, this is the place to be,” Graham said in his “traveling to Ashkelon” video.

Pompeo, Cruz and Graham didn’t meet with Israel’s slated future leaders, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. But Cruz and Graham covered their bases vis-à-vis the new government by sitting down with Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s current defense minister, who is slated to keep the job in the future Bennett-Lapid coalition.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens in a post-Netanyahu world,” said Katsman of Republicans Overseas. In the horse race for a 2024 nomination, he thinks Pompeo “may have the strongest hand to play when it comes to the Israel-supporting community.” As secretary of state, “he was very willing to overturn previous administration policies that were highly unfair to Israel.”

During his last visit to Israel in November 2020, in a whirlwind farewell tour as secretary of state shortly after Trump’s defeat, Pompeo made a move clearly designed to warm the hearts of hard-right, pro-Israel supporters, becoming the first U.S. secretary of state to officially visit a West Bank settlement. He traveled to the Psagot winery, which had named a limited edition wine after him, in honor of the fact that he had earlier declared that the U.S. no longer considers settlements to be illegal entities in violation of international law.

In the winery’s guest book, Pompeo wrote that it was a “blessing to be here in Judea and Samaria,” and said he hoped he would not be the last secretary of state to do so. During the same visit, he announced that the U.S. would label all exports from the West Bank as being “Israeli” without marking them as settlement products.

While Haley is popular and high profile in Israel for her work at the UN, Katsman said she is perceived as less loyal to the former president than Pompeo, and as having “undercut” him on occasion, although not on Israel-related issues. Pompeo, on the other hand, “is one of the few presumed candidates popular in both pro-Trump and anti-Trump Republican circles.”

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