JTA — It was one of the few questions that united all five candidates at what was a no-holds-barred Republican primary debate: What would they advise Israel’s prime minister as he wages war against Hamas?
The uniform answer: Finish them.
Israel and antisemitism featured large in the latest GOP primary debate in Miami on Wednesday, in part because a cosponsor of the debate was the Republican Jewish Coalition, which got to ask two questions, a first for a Jewish group. But they would have been asked even without the RJC’s influence, because Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack on Israel and the resulting war has roiled the world and American politics.
NBC moderator Lester Holt made his second question what the candidates would advise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. First to answer was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“I will be telling Bibi finish the job once and for all with these butchers,” said DeSantis, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “They’re terrorists. They’re massacring innocent people. They would wipe every Jew off the globe, if they could.”
The unalloyed backing for Netanyahu comes as US President Joe Biden, who also at first unquestioningly backed Netanyahu, has in recent days faced Israeli resistance to his pressure for humanitarian pauses in the fighting.
All four candidates echoed DeSantis’s reply. Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, suggested she had spoken with Netanyahu since October 7. “The first thing I said to him when it happened was, I said, ‘Finish them. Finish them.’”
War erupted on October 7 when Hamas attacked Israel, killing over 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and taking at least 240 into the Gaza Strip as hostages. Israel launched a military campaign in Gaza, vowing to destroy Hamas and remove it from power in the Palestinian enclave where the group has ruled since 2007.
The contenders were unified in offering robust support for Israel and bemoaned antisemitism, especially on liberal college campuses. They said virtually nothing about protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Israel says it is striving to avoid civilian casualties and accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields.
Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur who often bucks the Republican establishment on foreign policy, hewing to isolationism, was as bellicose as Haley, but also pivoted to a favored topic, the Mexican border, and suggested that he would seek to kill people there.
“I would tell him to smoke those terrorists on his southern border,” he said. “And then I’ll tell him as president of the United States, I’ll be smoking the terrorists on our southern border.”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said he would tell Netanyahu, “Not only do you have the responsibility and the right to wipe Hamas off of the map, we will support you, we will be there with you.” He took it a step further, saying he would also strike Iran, which is an ally of Hamas.
“You actually have to cut off the head of the snake, and the head of the snake is Iran and not simply the proxies,” he said.
Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, said Israel should have free rein, but also, unusually for a foreign politician, criticized Netanyahu for not being prepared.
“You must go in and make sure that Hamas can never do this again,” Christie said. “And the fact is that Israel and their intelligence community failed. They failed here and they failed the people of the State of Israel. And so we need to work closely and better together to make sure that [Hamas is] degraded.”
DeSantis claimed, without evidence, that there would have been more hostages in Gaza had he not scrambled state resources to help evacuate 700 people.
“We had Floridians that were over there after the attack. Biden left them stranded. They couldn’t get flights out. I scrambled resources in Florida. I sent planes over to Israel, and I brought back over 700 people to safety. There could’ve been more hostages had we not acted,” DeSantis said. “We acted, and we saved lives.”
The Biden administration also organized charter planes and ships of its own to help evacuate American citizens after the war broke out.
GOV. RON DESANTIS ON ISRAEL-HAMAS WAR: "I actually did something about it […] I sent planes over to Israel, and I brought back over 700 people to safety. There could've been more hostages had we not acted."
"We acted, and we saved lives." pic.twitter.com/d0XqUnBnLb
— Florida’s Voice (@FLVoiceNews) November 9, 2023
Absent was Donald Trump, the frontrunner who is so far ahead in the polls he does not feel the need to join the debates. The first question posed by NBC moderator Lester Holt was how each of the five candidates would defeat Trump. That out of the way, Trump, who attended a rally elsewhere in Florida while the debate was underway, was barely mentioned again.
RJC’s CEO Matt Brooks posed two questions and earned a shoutout from DeSantis for enduring a tough month. “I know it’s been very difficult for the [Jewish] community and appreciate you guys rallying together in difficult times,” DeSantis said.
Brooks’s first question was whether the United States should use military force against Iran given strikes by its proxies on US forces. DeSantis and Haley, who answered the question, avoided saying explicitly they would hit Iranian territory but said that they would retaliate more robustly than Biden has against the strikes by the proxies.
Brooks’s second question was about the spike in antisemitism at US universities. “Jewish students across the country are threatened and under attack,” he said. “What do you say to Jewish students on college campuses who feel unsafe given the dramatic rise in antisemitism?”
DeSantis noted that he recently barred some pro-Palestinian groups from operating on Florida campuses, and Scott similarly backed pulling federal funds from universities that do not adequately deal with antisemitism, something the Biden administration this week said would be its policy. Christie spoke about his experience dealing with antisemitic and anti-Muslim attacks as a US attorney immediately after 9/11.
Haley gave one of the most impassioned responses, saying that rising antisemitism revealed a country with a troubled soul.
“We don’t need to celebrate terrorists,” she said, referring to protesters who have at times characterized Hamas’s actions as “resistance.” “We don’t need to celebrate genocide. We don’t need to celebrate violence towards anybody. We need to go back and soul-search in our country and remember what we are about and we are about taking care of people not going and making them live in fear.”
“If the KKK were doing this, every college president would be up in arms,” Haley said. “This is no different. You should treat it exactly the same. And for everybody that protesting on these college campuses in favor of Hamas, let me remind you of something. Hamas said ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America.’ They hate and will kill you too.”
Ramaswamy said he preferred to counter speech with more speech. “We don’t quash this with censorship because that creates a worse underbelly,” he said. “We quell it through leadership by calling it out.”
Ramaswamy, who has flirted with the far right, at times seemed to speak in their direction. He chided the RNC for airing the debate on NBC, saying it should have chosen moderators such as Tucker Carlson, who was fired this year from Fox News, and Elon Musk, who has engaged with antisemites on X, the platform that he owns and renamed from Twitter. He called Volodymyr Zelensky, the Jewish president of Ukraine, a “Nazi” and accused him of persecuting Christians. Another of the cosponsors of the debate was Rumble, the video platform that gives free rein to the racist and antisemitic right.
Antisemitism also came up in a portion of the debate dealing with whether to shut down the social media video platform TikTok because its Chinese ownership poses a security risk. Politicians from both parties have alleged that TikTok’s algorithms favor antisemitic and pro-Palestinian content, especially since the Oct. 7 attacks.
“TikTok is not only spyware, it is polluting the minds of American young people all throughout this country,” Christie said. “And they’re doing it intentionally and when you saw what happened in the last few weeks, with all of this antisemitic, horrible stuff that their algorithms were pushing out at a gargantuan rate.”
Relatedly, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Jewish New Jersey Democrat, on Wednesday introduced legislation that would require TikTok to register as a foreign agent and to report on the promotion of hatred and terrorism on its platform or face stiff penalties. A press conference with Gottheimer; Republican Don Bacon of Nebraska, who is cosponsoring the bill; and the Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said TikTok postings promoting false narratives about the Oct. 7 attacks, including describing them as flag operation, had wide reach on the platform.
The TikTok debate produced the evening’s most stunning exchange in a raucous debate, when Ramaswamy hit back at Haley, who had previously derided him for embracing the app, saying that her daughter was a frequent user. “Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Haley said, leaning toward Ramaswamy. When he pressed on, she grimaced. “You’re just scum,” she said.
The GOP’s familiar foreign policy split resurfaced when the exchanges veered into the war in Ukraine, the possibility of China confronting Taiwan and how to handle Venezuela’s oil market.
Ramaswamy tried to set himself apart, claiming the rest of the stage was part of a bipartisan foreign policy establishment that blundered into repeated disasters in foreign wars. A longtime critic of aid to Ukraine, he followed up his condemnation of antisemitism by calling that country’s Jewish president “a Nazi.”
At at a rival rally in Hialeah, Trump declared the debates “not watchable,” and sought to present himself as a protective commander-in-chief.
“I kept America safe. I kept Israel safe, I kept Ukraine safe, and I kept the world safe,” he told his supporters.
“Israel, Ukraine would have never happened under the Trump administration.”
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.