Thirteen GOP presidential candidates gathered Thursday in Washington's Ronald Reagan Building to discuss national security and U.S.-Israeli relations at the Republican Jewish Coalition forum.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) opened the forum with an attack on the Obama administration’s foreign policy decisions, from signing the Iran deal to the administration’s inability to stand "unapologetically with the nation of Israel."
"If I am elected president, I have pledged on the very first day in office to rip to shred this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal," he said. He stressed the need of a "wartime president" – one who "is committed to conservative principles."
"It’s not just a question of our team winning," he said, referring to the need to elect a Republican president. "It’s a question of saving our country."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) focused on the black-and-white reality of destroying the Islamic State and America’s duty to support Israel through defense assistance and condemn those who wish to destroy it.
"You understand why it is that in many cases diplomacy and engagement does not work," he said, criticizing the Obama administration’s insistence on diplomacy in the Middle East. "And, in the case of ISIS, [diplomacy] has no chance of working. We face a very fundamental choice. Either they win or we win. There is no other possible outcome."
Rubio also promised to "speak out against Palestinian terror in no uncertain terms" and to "never confuse the victim and the victimizer" as president, unlike President Obama and Hillary Clinton, who have made the unsuccessful Israeli-Palestinian peace process "the defining feature" of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Later in the morning came GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, who said that Israel was a priority for him, but that those in the audience, who he called "negotiators," like him, probably would not support him because he does not take campaign donations.
"I've been sometimes criticized because I received so many awards from Jewish groups and they look at my wall," he said, but noted that Jews are no longer the only religious denomination paying him heed. "It's loaded up, but now the Christians are catching up, I have to tell you. My Christians are liking me a lot lately."
Still, he did not think he would win the audience’s support. "I don't want your money; therefore you're probably not going to support me because stupidly, you want to give money. Trump doesn't want money," he said.
While many of Trump’s opponents were resolute about the necessity of moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump would not say he would do so, which drew boos from the audience.
Gov. John Kasich (R., Ohio) emphasized the necessity of destroying the Islamic State as soon as possible, saying, "The longer we wait [to destroy the Islamic State], the higher the price we will pay. And this is a fight about our existence."
He praised the virtues of Israel and said that it is America’s best ally. "You tell me where we have a better ally that has more guts, more courage, more strength, more values than the State of Israel," he said.
Kasich also followed Trump’s anecdote by sharing his personal experience with the Jewish people who make "really good friend[s]" because they are loyal.
"My mother told me one time, she said, ‘Johnny … if you want to look for a really good friend, get somebody who's Jewish," he said.
Later, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, like Kasich and Trump, related his own experience with Judaism with this awkward line.
"Last night, I was watching Schindler's List," he said. "Everybody here has seen Schindler's List."
Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R., Ark.) followed Kasich, though his deeply religious, personalized speech took on a different tone.
Huckabee rooted his argument for protecting Israel and improving U.S.-Israeli relations in his belief in God.
"No President of the United States should pressure Israel to give up land God gave them the original deed to," he said.
On this religious, personal basis, Huckabee made clear his opposition to a two-state solution and said that Jerusalem must belong wholly to Israel. "Jerusalem should never be a divided city," he said.
The audience cheered when he described the trials that the Jewish state has faced. "I want to remind you that Israel has consistently and repeatedly given up, given up, given up, and given up and gotten nothing in return," he said.
Huckabee slammed the Obama administration for its reluctance both to protect Israel and to fight terror, choosing instead to fight climate change. "The next President has many jobs, not including meteorologist-in-chief," he said.
In his speech, Gov. Chris Christie (R., N.J.) focused on the terrorist threat that the U.S. faces today, underscoring this threat by evoking the recent mass shooting in California and re-telling his experience during 9/11.
"We need to come to grips with the idea that we are in the midst of the next world war," he said.
Christie said that the U.S.-Israeli relationship can be restored only if America regains its "strength of purpose" – if America becomes vigilant about its domestic and foreign security.
Jeb Bush, a favorite of RJC members in part because of his brother’s legacy, said that strengthening America's "ruptured relationship with Israel" would be the first step in reassuring America’s allies that America has "their back."
Bush vowed "on day one" of his presidency to extend "U.S. security assistance over the long haul" and to "move the United States embassy to Jerusalem." He also said that the U.S. should not put pressure on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations before the Palestinian Authority "recognize[s] the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state with secure borders."
He received loud cheers for pledging to "work with the next Attorney General to stop the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement in the United States," and for condemning the "discrimination" and "anti-Semitic behavior" that occurs "across the United States' college campuses."
In her speech, Carly Fiorina criticized former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her lack of leadership and said that in today’s "perilous times," "leadership … is more important than ever."
"Hillary Clinton was tweeting about gun control while we learned that radicalized Islamic terrorists have been building pipe bombs," she said. Fiorina denounced Obama and Clinton for their treatment of the Islamic State, as well as for "turn[ing] their back on Israel" in agreeing to the "absolutely catastrophic deal with Iran."
"I’m angry. Maybe you’re angry as well," she said. "I am angry because this president and the soon-to-be Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton do not understand this threat and refuse to call it by its name: radical Islamic terrorism."
Fiorina then extolled the virtue of courage and said that, "courage and optimists are what is so impressive about the Israelis, and what is required to lead." She said that the United States is exceptional, and that it must stand with its allies, including Israel. Otherwise "we lose courage, and our adversaries move forward."
Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) was scheduled to speak but was a late cancellation due to scheduled votes on Capitol Hill.