Ahead of first visit to Israel, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul raises ire of Jewish Democrats

Ahead of first visit to Israel, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul raises ire of Jewish Democrats

Democratic, Republican Jewish groups trade barbs over Paul’s calls to cut foreign aid and Obama’s possible appointment of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Republican Senator Rand Paul (Photo credit: CC BY/ Gage Skidmore via Flickr.com)
Republican Senator Rand Paul (Photo credit: CC BY/ Gage Skidmore via Flickr.com)

NEW YORK — Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s new assignment to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has left Jewish Democrats angered and warning about the Republican senator’s “singular obsession with slashing aid to the Jewish state.”

In a statement Friday, National Jewish Democratic Council head David Harris charged that Paul’s appointment to “the Senate’s primary diplomatic committee” should be “raising red flags and provoking severe concern across the pro-Israel community.”

“The decision by Republican Senate leaders to give a bigger microphone and a prominent platform to someone who has repeatedly called for an end to US aid to Israel and used his leadership PAC to push an anti-foreign aid agenda is simply outrageous,” Harris continued. “As we’ve said for months, Senator Paul and his father’s acolytes are becoming legitimate forces in today’s Republican Party — and pro-Israel Republicans have repeatedly and epically failed to address this growing issue within the GOP ranks. Now this failure has very real consequences.”

Paul has called several times for lowering US foreign aid, including aid to Israel. But his views on the US-Israel relationship have been “evolving,” suggested one knowledgeable Washington source.

On Sunday, Paul will be flying to Israel with an Evangelical Christian group on his first visit to the Jewish state, “to start to immerse himself in the issues over there,” said the source. “I think that’s an encouraging step.” He is slated to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, together with Palestinian and Jordanian leaders during his visit.

Paul has railed against those who call him “anti-Israel,” telling the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal in late December that “it is not my position to be against Israel. I’m appreciative of the fact that Israel is a democracy, one of the few true democracies in the Middle East, and I’m also appreciative that they’ve been a close friend and ally.”

Cuts to foreign aid “should start with countries who have not been good allies…. I wouldn’t start with Israel. Whether or not we can afford to continue aid to Israel over time? There needs to be discussion with Israel over them being more independent over time.”

Of the trip, he said, “I want to know more about the issues… [and] try to figure out why we don’t seem to be able to achieve peace over there… If you want to be part of the national debate and hopefully part of the solution someday to what happens in the Middle East, having been there gives you more credibility with some folks.”

Senator Paul’s office did not immediately return requests for comment on Friday. A statement posted a day earlier on his Senate website said his committee assignments “will greatly benefit the legislation I plan on working on over the next two years to benefit the people of Kentucky, and our nation as a whole.”

While it did not support Rand Paul during his 2010 Republican primary for the Kentucky Senate seat, the Republican Jewish Coalition, NJDC’s counterpart on the right, responded to the Democratic attack by criticizing the group’s silence over another potential nomination that could impact the US-Israel relationship: President Barack Obama’s reported consideration of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense.

“The NJDC has zero credibility in speaking out on any issues of concern regarding the Jewish community, as they continue to remain silent in the face of the impending nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense,” said the RJC’s Matt Brooks, calling the possible Hagel nomination “one of the most troubling nominations to come down the pipeline.”

Harris responded to the jibe Friday: “Unlike unconfirmed rumors [of a possible Hagel nomination], Senator Paul — who takes the extreme position of opposing foreign aid to Israel — has actually been selected by his Republican colleagues to represent them on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And pro-Israel Republicans are silent? Now that’s hypocrisy.”

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