Returning to Washington from his weeklong tour of Israel, Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul took national security hawks off-guard Wednesday by voicing support for an Iron Dome-style missile defence system to defend major U.S. cities.
“Absolutely I’m in favour of it,” Paul told reporters on a conference call briefing reporters on his trip. “There’s no reason our White House, our Capitol, and our major cities shouldn’t have a missile defence.”
“I saw presentations on the Iron Dome and it was very impressive,” he added.
The comments, along with other statements Paul made while in Israel, have come as a pleasant surprise to pro-Israel hardliners, many of whom have criticised the Kentucky Senator for being anti-Israel as a result of his opposition to foreign aid.
By Paul’s own admission, last week’s trip to the Middle East was largely aimed at dispelling the perception that his libertarian foreign policy views are incompatible with his party’s hardline stance toward Israel.
“Part of the reason I am here is to show that I am not anti-Israel,” Paul told evangelical leaders who accompanied him on the trip. “There is this perception out there that because I’m in favour of cutting foreign aid I am not a friend to Israel…But there is more than one way to be a friend to Israel.”
In Israel, political leaders and conservative activists who met with Paul told Business Insider that he was mostly successful in achieving this goal.
“It was a home run,” said David Lane, a California-based evangelical leader who organised Paul’s trip. “He handled himself — his first trip to Israel – very, very well.”
“For the first time, he’s actually taken a very substantial position — now he’s on the record where he stands,” said Mallory Factor, an influential conservative activist who accompanied Paul for part of his trip. “He does have a handle on the issues — he calls it the way it should be called, instead of trying to be politically correct about it.”
By framing his libertarian foreign policy as a question of Israeli sovereignty rather than U.S. isolationism, Factor said, Paul was able to walk the fine line between showing support for Israel and abandoning his libertarian principles.
On the question of settlements, for example, Paul’s non-interventionist positions put him firmly in line with Israel hawks.
“If somebody asked me where to build in Israel, I would say it’s none of my business,” Paul told reporters in Israel. “What I think is wrong is for American politicians to come to Jerusalem and say ‘You shouldn’t be building in this neighbourhood’…or for American politicians to come over and tell you that you need to give the Golan Heights back.”
Extrapolating this argument to his position on foreign aid, Paul told his audiences in Israel that gradually cutting back assistance would reduce the pressure to fall in line with U.S. policy preferences.
“I don’t think Israel should be dictated to,” he said in Jerusalem. “But I also think that if [Israel] were less dependent on our aid, it would be less beholden. I don’t think Israel needs to come on bended knee to ask if she can defend herself.”
Paul avoided calling for an outright end to foreign aid to Israel, however, saying that the U.S. should first cut off funding for countries who “burn the American flag,” including Egypt and Palestine.
“The biggest threat to our nation right now is our debt,” he said. “This does mean that we have to reassess who to give aid to, and when we do reassess that, I would begin with countries that are burning our flag and chanting ‘Death to America.’ No one is accusing Israel of that.”
At times during the trip, Paul appeared in over his head on regional issues; in particular, Israeli leaders appeared frustrated by the Senator’s oft-repeated suggestion that Israel could kickstart a more piecemeal peace process by easing trade restrictions on Palestinians.
Paul also stopped short of endorsing the one-state solution favoured by Israel’s conservative leaders, including members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. After meeting with Naftali Bennett, a rising political star who leads Israel’s far-right Jewish Home party, Paul expressed doubts about the Knesset candidate’s proposal to annex virtually all of the West Bank.
“There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of hope in that,” he told Business Insider after the meeting.
Even those who disagreed with Paul said they appreciated his straightforward approach and apparent inability to pander to his audience.
“I don’t agree with him on his foreign aid position,” said Isaac Applbaum, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and major GOP donor who spent time with Paul in Jerusalem. “He opened his eyes to the complexities of the situation in Israel and the Middle East.”
Evangelical leaders and party activists who joined the tour also responded warmly to Paul’s candor — an auspicious sign as the Kentucky Republican contemplates a possible presidential run in 2016.
“I really have liked his approach to the questions that I’ve heard posed to him so far — it’s really atypical to what you’ve heard in the past,” said South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly. “He’s not just asking for pat answers, he’s asking for something that is really in-depth and thoughtful. He’s demonstrating that he’s listening to both sides of the issue.”
California-based pastor Rob McCoy added: “He is approaching the Israel community same way he is approaching our evangelical community. He is not fawning over us or them. Instead he is honestly trying to understand us.”
“There is a part of me that wonders if he is part of the evangelical community, but there’s another part that says I really enjoy his presence, and that it doesn’t matter,” McCoy said. “I don’t want somebody who is going to play me — the Republican Party has already played me.”
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