The entire Republican presidential field descended on Washington, D.C. today for the Republican Jewish Coalition’s 2016 Presidential Candidate Forum. The conservative group, which promotes continued U.S. aid to Israel and is vehemently opposed to the Iran Nuclear Deal, presented an ideal opportunity for the GOP hopefuls to tout their bonafides and appeal to potential donors.
The candidates’ message for the crowd of more than 500 conservatives was clear: a Republican president is the best bet to protect Israel.
While the candidates focused on some well–trodden territory—Syria, growing tensions with Palestinians in the West Bank, and ISIS—they also united on some specific issues, including a promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the city of Jerusalem.
Always one to shy away from policy specifics, Donald Trump stuck to a topic he knows inside and out: himself. He touted his experience as Grand Marshall of the Israel Day Parade in NYC in 2004, evidence he said proved he has more experience than the other nominees on the topic of Israel. When asked about his relations with Arab leaders, Trump admitted he didn’t have any, but that the King of Jordan “seemed like a nice guy.”
GOP candidates have made strides to establish, if not an expertise, at least credibility on the Middle East and Israel. Trump announced yesterday a trip to visit Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while Ben Carson recently went on a tour of Syrian refugee camps in Amman, Jordan, trying to bolster a perceived weakness on foreign policy.
US-Israel relations have grown increasingly important to Republican voters, largely driven by the Evangelical right. A Gallup poll released in February found that 62% of respondents said they sympathize more with the Israelis than the Palestinians in the Mideast conflict. The poll found Republicans’ support for the Jewish state has risen dramatically, from 53% in 2000 to more than 80% since 2014.
Thursday’s event also presented an opportunity for RJC board members to vet the presidential hopefuls. The most notable, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, spent at least $93 million on super PACs supporting Republicans back in 2012. Adelson has not yet decided on which GOP candidate to back in 2016. Billionaire investor Paul Singer, another RJC board member in attendance, endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio back in October.
Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina pleaded directly to the crowd during his speech telling them, “I’m at 1 percent. The election is still a long way away. Help me stay in this race.”
Nevertheless, not everyone was there for money. At one point during a wandering speech, Trump told the audience, “You’re not going to support me even though I’ll be the best thing for Israel. But you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.”
It was a taunt that won’t likely net him any new supporters.