Although the 2016 presidential election is still a long way off, prospective candidates are already more than testing the waters for their presidential bids — primarily in the open Republican field. A potential presidential campaign means greater attention is being focused on past campaign promises by a hungry media eager to pick up on every possible contradiction in a candidate’s record.
Which is why many in the pro-Israel community took notice when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), one of the most visible potential presidential contenders in 2016, told Yahoo News political reporter Chris Moody on Aug. 4 that he never attempted to cut foreign aid to Israel.
“I haven’t really proposed that in the past,” Paul, who was campaigning for a Senate candidate in Nebraska before embarking on a multicity Iowa tour, told Yahoo News. “We’ve never had a legislative proposal to do that. … That has not been a position — a legislative position — we have introduced to phase out or get rid of Israel’s aid. That’s the answer to that question. Israel has always been a strong ally of ours, and I appreciate that. I voted just this week to give money — more money — to the Iron Dome[anti-missile system], so don’t mischaracterize my position on Israel.”
That statement from Paul, though possibly unintentional after having been caught off-guard by Moody’s question, contains little truth and, unfortunately for Paul, there are videos and documents to prove it.
Shortly after Paul’s comment, his office doubled down on the statement, saying: “Sen. Rand Paul has never proposed any legislation that targeted Israel’s aid and just last week voted to continue and increase funding to the State of Israel. Sen. Paul is a strong supporter of the Jewish state of Israel.”
As Moody pointed out, Paul’s proposal in his first year as senator in 2011 to balance the U.S. federal budget called for cutting foreign aid entirely — and though it did not specifically “target” Israel, Israel was also not spared.
Paul and his staff’s claim that he voted for $225 million for emergency funding for Israel’s Iron Dome system is likewise misleading, though much less so. Although additional Iron Dome funding was passed by the Senate on July 1, it was done by “unanimous consent.” That tactic is used by senators to pass uncontroversial pieces of legislation without resorting to the time-consuming roll-call vote. The senator, in this case Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), asks if there are any objections to passing the bill in the usually empty Senate chamber. On the morning Iron Dome funding was passed, there was no vote, Paul merely did not object. Nor was he in the Senate chamber like all but a few senators as most were flying out of town to begin their August recess.
“In 2011, Sen. Paul proposed a budget resolution that did not include certain foreign assistance programs in an effort to balance the budget in five years,” said the statement from Paul’s office. “Subsequent budget proposals made by Sen. Paul have included up to $5 billion for foreign assistance to account for U.S.-Israel security interests.”
Even if it was later amended, Paul’s early budget did not make any exceptions for Israel. Paul even defended his not including financial assistance to Israel when being interviewed on national television.
“I have a lot of sympathy and respect for Israel as a democratic nation, as a fountain of peace and a fountain of democracy within the Middle East,” Paul told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in a Jan. 2011 interview. “But at the same time, I don’t think funding both sides of the arms race, particularly when we have to borrow the money from China to send it to someone else, [makes sense]. We just can’t do it anymore. The debt is all-consuming, and it threatens our well-being as a country.”
Paul made a similar argument to ABC’s Jonathan Karl, though qualifying his statement by noting that he was not singling out Israel, which indeed he wasn’t.
“I support Israel. I want to be known as a friend of Israel, but not with money you don’t have. We can’t just borrow from our kids’ future and give it to countries, even if they are our friends,” Paul said. “I think they’re an important ally, but I also think that their per-capita income is greater than probably three-fourths of the rest of the world. Should we be giving free money or welfare to a rich nation? I don’t think so.”
Democrats quickly seized on Paul’s seeming flip-flop on an issue that can be considered one of the most bipartisan in the hyper-partisan universe of Capitol Hill.
“Sen. Paul can claim that he wants to be a friend of Israel, but the consequences of his actions would threaten the security of Israel and its ability to defend itself,” said Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and National Jewish Democratic Council executive director Rabbi Jack Moline in a joint statement. “This is part of a troubling pattern with Senator Paul — from civil rights to foreign policy, Paul has said one disturbing thing after another for years and now that he’s running for President, he’s trying to rewrite history. Voters are smarter than that and can see right through his deceit.”
Paul’s camp is standing by his rhetoric, though pointing out that Paul’s more recent budget proposals do include Israel funding. Paul’s spokesman, in an email, referenced a 1996 speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, predicting that Israel would not need financial support within a few years.
Paul’s national campaigning has required him to evolve on a number of other issues, even if only slightly.
Recently, the National Journal reported that Paul had been courting prominent Jewish conservatives in an effort to distance himself from the isolationist rhetoric of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) who railed against U.S. involvement in the Middle East and against the Israel lobby.
The younger Paul appears more open-minded when it comes to issues related to Israel, heading there on a trip in January 2013 and later visiting an Orthodox yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J.
“I think he has, in his own words, a new appreciation of the true security needs of Israel, and I don’t think there’s any issue about him voting against any specific military aid to Israel,” said Texas businessman and Republican activist Fred Zeidman, who has met with Paul to discuss his stance on Israel, among other important campaign issues. Israel “wasn’t an issue that he had focused on before, and I [don’t] think now, that he has spent a lot more time trying to understand that issue, we’ll have a problem with regard to Israel.”