Analysis |

Israel Showcased in an Unusually Subdued Yet Reliably Unhinged GOP Debate

Crucial primaries on 'Super Duper Tuesday' include states with over 1.2 million Jews, including Florida’s 650,000 strong and potentially decisive community.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Republican presidential candidates Sen. Marco Rubio (left), Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz stand up for the national anthem during a primary debate in Miami on Thursday, March 10, 2016.
Republican presidential candidates Sen. Marco Rubio (left), Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz stand up for the national anthem during a primary debate in Miami on Thursday, March 10, 2016.Credit: Mike Stocker/The Miami Herald via AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

More than 1.2 million Jews live in the states participating in next Tuesday’s primaries, affectionately dubbed “Super Duper Tuesday.” Some 650,000 of them reside in Florida, comprising about 3.5 percent of the general population, though their electoral weight might be much greater: Florida Jews are significantly older than the rest of the population, with a higher level of political participation.

Florida's Jews gave Mitt Romney 32 percent of their votes in 2012, though anecdotal evidence suggests a steady right-wing drift in the direction of the GOP, at least theoretically. All of which is by way of an explanation why Israel played such a prominent role in the Republican debate held on Thursday night at the University of Miami.

But the emphasis on Israel – it was mentioned 37 times during the two-hour debate – wasn’t the main reason why this debate was radically different from its 11 predecessors. The explanation for that lies in the fact that the main star, Donald Trump, cast himself in a dramatically different role this time around. He was calm, rather than belligerent, easygoing instead of vindictive, soft-spoken, at least by his standards, rather than relentlessly scathing. That’s why this debate was the most substantive of all, though cynics noted that it was the most boring as well.

Which doesn’t mean that some of the positions and policies enunciated by the candidates weren’t completely unhinged, by international standards, and not just on Israel. Here are a few illustrations: Trump not only refused to denounce the violence of his supporters toward “very dangerous” protestors at his rallies, he empathized with their outbursts, which he ascribed to their justified rage.

Rubio – whose performance was lauded by analysts who wondered why only now, when it’s probably too late – adamantly refused to acknowledge universally recognized global warming, even though it threatens to drown Miami under rising sea levels. Cruz said Washington didn’t need additional smartness, and, with or without any connection, he also pledged to abolish the Department of Education. Only Kasich remained relatively stable, but that’s understandable given that he’s based his entire campaign on the unproven premise that there are enough sane GOP primary voters to carry a candidate to victory.

They all had valid reasons to stay cool, calm and collected. Trump wanted to project himself as presidential and to persuade his surroundings that the race was essentially over. He was also relaxed with the knowledge that the following morning he would show the ace up his sleeve in the form of a valuable endorsement from former contender Ben Carson. Cruz, who garnered his own endorsement from former candidate Carly Fiorina, wanted to differentiate himself from Kasich and Rubio and to cast himself as Trump’s equal, which his why he found himself bound by the New York tycoon’s new found serenity as well.

And Rubio, for whom a Florida loss on Tuesday could spell the end of his presidential race if not his political career, wanted to remind everyone of the suave and eloquent politician who once captured the heart of the GOP establishment and to make people forget the down and dirty barroom brawler who hurled vulgarities at Trump in recent weeks in a failed effort to take him down.

Trump’s rivals tried to score some points with both Jews and Evangelicals by assaulting Trump’s intention of maintaining a semblance of “neutrality” in order to try and negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. In doing so, they went so far to the right that they almost fell off the map: Cruz pledged unconditional support and pinned the blame for everything on Palestinian incitement. Rubio said Israel had no partner, warned against any thought of relinquishing “Judea and Samaria” and described Trump’s very notion of trying to achieve peace as “anti-Israel."

Even the usually moderate Kasich wrote off the possibility of any long term permanent peace deal, with or without any connection to the 150,000+ Jews in his own Ohio, or the 300,000 who reside in Illinois, and who might make all the difference in a very tight race.

Trump, to his credit, didn’t backtrack on his “neutrality” clause. He also refused to emulate Cruz and Rubio’s preposterous pledge to tear up the Iran nuclear deal on their first day in office. But he did anoint himself as Israel’s greatest supporter since the dawn of human history, more or less. He once again recounted the time he served as grand marshal of the Salute to Israel Parade in New York, cited his Israeli friends as well as his “strong Jewish” pals in New York and didn’t forget to include his certifiably Jewish daughter, son in law and grandchildren.

But Trump’s moderate stand on Israel did not ensure similar composure on some of his other positions: he refused to retract his statement that “Islam hates us,” conceding to CNN’s Jake Tapper, as a friendly gesture, that “a lot of them hate us.” And he continued to express his disturbing admiration for “strong” Vladimir Putin, unlike Angela Merkel, who he once admired because she was “strong” but now she’s weak, and he even cited the “strong” reaction of the Chinese authorities to the 1989 protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square protest, which Trump described as a “riot.”

Only Kasich outdid Trump in the historical precedent department, citing Gerald Ford’s presidential pardon to Richard Nixon for his Watergate crimes. I was in favor, Kasich informed the world.

Rubio also went back and forth between moderation and way out there. He was the epitome of realism when he tempered Trump’s diatribe against Islam by saying that America needs to collaborate with “moderate” Arab regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others in order to defeat ISIS.

But then he launched a relentless assault on President Barack Obama’s recent rapprochement with Cuba, sparking the loudest applause of the evening from the locals in Miami, who are still seething about Castro’s revolution and would prefer to continue sanctioning and isolating Cuba for another century or two, because 55 years weren’t enough to reach a definitive conclusion that the policy wasn’t working.

At the end of the two-hour debate, the candidates seemed happy it was all over and they had emerged unharmed. In Jewish culinary terms, their discussion was parve, devoid of the usual sparks and flare-ups that turned most previous debates into the spiciest show in town. As the frontrunner, Trump had an obvious interest in maintaining the status quo; the other three, an MSNBC commentator noted, seem to have lost their drive to win.

But perhaps their jitters were understandable, given next week’s fateful vote, which could see previously favored candidates ejected from the race and only one, possibly two contenders left to compete. Both, by the way, were considered outlandish prospects a short time ago.

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