WASHINGTON — With the Republican National Convention less than a month away, Donald Trump will soon make the critical move of selecting his running mate. Political pundits have often said the choice of a vice presidential candidate is the first important decision a party’s nominee makes and the first indication of how he or she will make decisions in the White House.
As Trump prepares to make his announcement, those on his current shortlist all share a history of expressing generic support for Israel — though two have generated controversy over how they’ve expressed that support.
On the issues, they all support Israel’s right to defend itself from regional threats, are critical of the Iran nuclear deal forged last summer, and have said the US must not allow Tehran to develop a nuclear weapon. None of them has articulated anything close to Trump’s call for the US to remain “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But in a presidential election year that has turned all conventions on their head, some policy differences between Trump and any potential running mate are becoming increasingly inevitable. The real-estate-mogul-turned-politician has had a difficult month — including controversies that are rendering his already tense relationship with the Republican establishment even more fraught — and reports have emerged that the list of those willing to join his ticket is rapidly dwindling.
Trump’s recent behavior has prompted many Republicans to run, duck and seek cover from their party’s newfound standard-bearer. In the last few weeks, for instance, Trump has insisted Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who oversaw a lawsuit against the now inoperative Trump University, could not be impartial in the case because of his Mexican heritage; and after a self-professed Islamic State sympathizer attacked a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people, Trump reiterated his controversial call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States, blamed Muslims for not reporting extremists within their communities, and demanded President Barack Obama’s resignation, suggesting he was sympathetic to Islamist terrorists.
As of this writing, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of defense Robert Gates, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst have all indicated they’re not interested in running alongside Trump.
There had been some speculation that Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker was a possibility, but in recent interviews, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has appeared disconsolate on the topic. When asked about Trump last week, he reportedly said, “I don’t want to talk about any of that.”
According to a Politico report this week, multiple high-level sources in the Republican Party have said that Trump’s veep list has narrowed down to four names: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin.
Below is a breakdown of those four’s history with Israel and some of their stances on US foreign policy toward the Middle East.
Like Trump, Christie has not been reluctant to disparage President Obama and characterize his approach toward Israel as categorically bad.
“Our commitment to Israel must be absolute. Israel is a beacon of freedom in a sea of autocracy and our friendship should be unshakable,” Christie told a crowd in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, last year. “Over the last few years this administration has taken our Israeli partners for granted and it is shameful how the president has treated them.”
Trump, for his part, has taken his criticism of Obama’s Middle East policies to a higher plane. At this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, he told a crowd of roughly 18,000 that the president “may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel.”
“Believe me,” he added, in his standard fashion.
Many pundits, however, found it hard to believe when Christie endorsed his former rival in February, shortly after suspending his own disappointing campaign: Just a few weeks after the Garden State governor said Trump was “one of the carnival barkers of today,” that his proposal to temporarily ban Muslim entry into the United States was “ridiculous” and that his plan to build a wall on Mexico’s border “makes no sense,” Christie called Trump “a real talent” and declared he was “happy to be on the Trump team.”
A governor of a small state and former US attorney, Christie, 53, has never executed foreign policy. (He once addressed his lack of experience with The Atantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg by saying that, as governor of New Jersey, “You have to deal with Bill de Blasio every day — that’s foreign policy.”) During the campaign, Christie positioned himself as a hawk, proposing to expand America’s military infrastructure and strengthen its intelligence-gathering surveillance programs.
Like Trump — and every other Republican who ran for president in 2016 — he’s been critical of Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, calling it “flimsy” and precarious: “The president is playing a dangerous game with our national security, and the deal as structured will lead to a nuclear Iran and, then, a nuclearized Middle East,” he said at a campaign event.
Another reason for his opposition to the landmark pact, he has intimated, relates to its potential effect on Israel. He told Goldberg that under a Christie administration, “We’re not going to make any more agreements or have meetings with folks who won’t recognize Israel’s right to exist.”
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Christie has, for the most part, not deviated from the Republican Party’s orthodoxy: He has advocated strengthening the US alliance with the Jewish state and maintaining a robust defense of its security.
But he has had one blip with the pro-Israel faction of the Republican base. In March 2014, Christie recounted a trip his family took to Israel in 2012, and said: “I took a helicopter ride from the occupied territories across and just felt personally how extraordinary that was to understand, the military risk that Israel faces every day.”
His use of the term “occupied territories” drew swift ire from those in attendance and, perhaps more consequentially for a GOP presidential hopeful, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Christie subsequently apologized to the mega-donor at his office at the Venetian Hotel and Casino and said he “misspoke.”
Adelson — who donated $93 million to Republicans in the 2012 election cycle with his Israeli-born wife Miriam (which made them the highest individual political donors in America that year) — accepted the apology.
Former House speaker Gingrich, 72, is a veteran of national politics and a longtime party faithful, and has been among the most vocal supporters of Trump’s controversial campaign.
The exception that proved the rule, however, came when Gingrich lambasted Trump for alleging that a federal judge could not preside over a Trump University lawsuit because of his ethnicity.
“It was one of the worst mistakes Trump has made, and I think it is inexcusable,” the former presidential candidate told Fox News Sunday. “This judge was born in Indiana. He is an American, period. When you come to America, you get to become an American.” Trump later responded: “As far as Newt is concerned, I saw Newt, I was surprised that Newt — I thought it was inappropriate what he said.”
Nevertheless, Gingrich’s relative loyalty to Trump, along with his skills as a communicator and debater, makes him a serious VP option. If Gingrich were chosen, he would bring a more comprehensive background on Israel and the Middle East than the other potential running mates, but he would also bring more controversy on the already emotionally charged issue.
In 2011, Gingrich called the Palestinians an “invented” people, offering a sharply different attitude from the one reflected in longstanding US policy of both Democratic and Republican administrations.
“Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire,” Gingrich told The Jewish Channel in an interview. “I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and who were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places, and for a variety of political reasons [they] have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and it’s tragic.”
While historians differ on when the Palestinian national movement first emerged, the US has consistently pushed for a two-state outcome to the conflict that would entail the establishment of a Palestinian state, and have thus recognized the national rights of Palestinians.
While Christie had to backtrack with Adelson over designating the West Bank as “occupied,” Gingrich won approbation from the casino magnate. Speaking to hundreds of college students visiting Israel on a Taglit Birthright trip, in December 2011, Adelson said, “Read the history of those who call themselves Palestinians, and you will hear why Gingrich said recently that the Palestinians are an invented people.”
In a manner similar to Trump, Gingrich has derided Obama’s Middle East diplomacy. In his Jewish Channel interview, he called the president’s efforts in the region “so out of touch with reality that it would be like taking your child to the zoo and explaining that a lion was a bunny rabbit.”
Obama, however, is not the first Democratic president whose peace efforts have elicited disapproval from Gingrich. As House speaker from 1995 to 1999, Gingrich clashed with the Clinton administration over its mediation of the Oslo Accords.
Amid negotiations, Gingrich repeatedly demanded that Jerusalem be recognized as Israel’s “eternal and united capital” and had Congress order the US Embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to the ancient city. Clinton aimed to have the future of Jerusalem resolved between the parties as part of a comprehensive final settlement.
During the ’90s, it was also reported that Gingrich called then secretary of state Madeleine Albright a “secret agent of the Palestinians” for pressuring first-term Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move on a territorial compromise with Yasser Arafat that the administration hoped would revive the Oslo process, which was then experiencing a 14-month stalemate.
In May 1998, he addressed the Knesset on a visit to Israel and encouraged Israelis to reject the move Clinton had been pushing, igniting a firestorm over his criticizing US foreign policy on foreign soil.
The first sitting US senator to back Trump, Sessions has been considered a potential running mate for months. While the Alabama conservative told CNN he doesn’t “expect to be asked,” pundits have said he brings experience with foreign policy issues and a working knowledge of Washington and the legislative process.
Sessions, 69, has been in the Senate for nearly 20 years, sits on the Armed Services Committee and is a former ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, of which he remains a member.
Trump once told supporters that Congressional know-how was a qualification he would seek. “I want to have somebody who can deal with Congress, who gets along with Congress, who is a Washington person,” he said in April.
Sessions has never made headlines over Israel like Christie or Gingrich. His long career in Washington consists of stances that are in line with the Republican orthodoxy on Israel; in recent years, for instance, he has championed Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas rocket attacks, urged the Obama administration to veto any measure targeting Israel at the United Nations, and staunchly opposed the Iranian nuclear deal, which he said would “create instability even more so in the Middle East and can alarmingly lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons in multiple nations in the Middle East.”
Asked recently by CNN’s Dana Bash whether he’s been in talks with the Trump campaign, he said, “I have not been discussing that with them and I don’t even know if anybody’s being vetted. I have only said, if I were asked, I would consider it. I don’t expect that to happen.”
The Oklahoma governor is considered the least likely of the four to be chosen, according to Politico. Before serving as governor of a small state (she’s the first female governor of Oklahoma), Fallin was in the House of Representatives, where she served on the House Armed Services Committee.
Throughout her career in public office, she has been a vocal supporter of the Jewish state, even though she’s removed from foreign policy in her current position. During the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, Fallin sent out a press release supporting Israel’s right to defend itself.
“I condemn the continued rocket attacks on the people of Israel by Hamas and other terrorist groups. Israel has the right to defend its citizens against any and all terrorist attacks,” she said. “Israel is a friend to Oklahoma and to all of the United States, and it’s important that the people of Israel know that America stands behind them. Our prayers and hopes are for a quick suspension of hostilities and a lasting peace.”
Fallin, 61, can also boast a pro-Israel voting record in Congress and some cooperation with Israeli officials as executive of her state. In 2012, Israel’s consul general to the Southwest, Meir Schlomo, visited Fallin in Oklahoma City to discuss ways Oklahoma energy companies could help Israel develop its natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea.
The GOP convention, in which the party’s delegates will officially nominate their presidential and vice presidential nominees, will be held in Cleveland, Ohio, from July 18 to July 21.