As week-long visit to Israel comes to a close, senator says US should not meddle in decisions regarding settlement construction.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul in Jerusalem
It is “none of our business” whether Israel builds new neighborhoods in east Jerusalem or withdraws from the Golan Heights, and the US should not tell Israel how to defend itself, US Sen. (RKentucky) said on Saturday night at the end of a week-long visit to the country.
Paul, a maverick libertarian senator known for his advocacy of slashing US foreign aid, said at a press briefing that the issue of cutting aid to Israel – something he advocates as part of a gradual process – did not come up during his meetings with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or President Shimon Peres.
Paul said that he was not interested in the message of his trip being that he came here “touting and spouting” cutting aid to Israel.
“I came here to show that I am supportive of the relationship between Israel and America,” he said.
The first-term senator’s anti-foreign aid approach does concern some pro-Israel advocates in the US, concerned that he wants to significantly trim Washington’s annual $3 billion in military aid to Jerusalem.
“The biggest threat to our nation right now is our debt,” said Paul, adding that a bankrupt America would not be a good ally for Israel. “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.”
Paul said he was not talking about anything different than what Netanyahu said in a 1996 speech to Congress, in which he advocated Israel gradually weaning itself off of American aid dollars.
This would benefit Israel and its defense industry, because it would not have to buy all its weaponry from the US, and a curtailment of US foreign aid would also mean less money for arms for Israel’s neighbors, Paul said.
Stating that the US gives more foreign aid to Israel’s neighbors than to Israel, Paul said that if the US gives 20 F-16 fighter plans to Egypt, Israel then feels it needs to buy 25; or if the US gives Egypt 200 tanks, Israel feels the need to purchase 300.
Paul stressed that he was worried about giving weapons to Egypt at the present time, especially since President Mohamed Morsi is listening to a spiritual leader calling for “the death of Israel and all its friends.”
The senator said he was “very disappointed” that after giving Egypt some $60 billion in aid over the past 30 years, rioters there climbed the roof of the embassy last year, took down the US flag and burned it.
“That should never have happened and is inexcusable,” he asserted.
Paul said the issue of his position regarding aid toward Egypt did come up in the conversation with Netanyahu.
Unlike most US senators who visit Israel, Paul had two public appearances during his week here, an indication perhaps that he is indeed – as has been widely speculated – gearing up for a 2016 presidential bid. He also spent a day in Jordan, meeting with King Abdullah II and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Paul, a newly appointed member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, would not comment on the controversial nomination of former senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, or on how he would vote when the Senate is asked to confirm the appointment.
Regarding the overall direction of the US-Israel relationship in a second Obama term, he said that “even with the problems,” America’s ties with Israel are so strong that they will remain that way “even with the Obama administration not seeming to be going out to dinner with Netanyahu, or playing bridge, or whatever you do with your friends.”
While Paul said the US should not meddle in Israel’s decisionmaking process regarding settlement construction or the Golan Heights, he added that Iran was a different issue because it had ramifications for the entire Middle East.
The senator, who voted for sanctions against Iran, said the sanctions would have a better chance of success if Russia and China were involved, and advocated using trade leverage with those countries to get them on board. As opposed to what he termed “show votes” on sanctions at the UN, where some countries do whatever they can to show their strong opposition to the US, he advocated “quiet diplomacy” with China and Russia on the matter.
“We do a lot of trade with Russia, and Iran does some,” he said.
“But I think the trade with America is more important to China and Russia, and I think that trade should be used with some leverage to get them to cooperate and help talk Iran down and get them to do the right thing.”
Paul was not the only Republican lawmaker in the country over the weekend, and Netanyahu on Friday met another delegation of five Republican senators – led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also from Kentucky – and the discussion focused on Iran.
“My priority, if I’m elected for another term as prime minister, will be first to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu told the delegation. “I think that was and remains the highest priority for both our countries. I appreciate the American support and your support for that end.”
McConnell, at the meeting, talked about the strong bipartisan support for Israel, even as Republicans and Democrats are at odds on so many other issues.
“As everybody in Israel knows, there are a lot of things we disagree on in America,” he said.
“We’ve had big battles over deficit and debt, but there’s broad bipartisan support for Israel, and our agenda in this part of the world is the same as your agenda.
You’re one of our best friends, and we’re happy to continue that relationship.” •