Washington, DC – Ahead of the first Republican debate in the 2024 United States presidential race, two candidates have clashed over support for Israel, showing differences within the party over foreign aid.
Former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley hit out at her fellow Republican Vivek Ramaswamy on Monday for suggesting that he would cut US military assistance to Israel.
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“Vivek Ramaswamy is completely wrong to call for ending America’s special bond with Israel,” Haley, a staunch Israel supporter, said in a statement.
“Support for Israel is both the morally right and strategically smart thing to do. Both countries are stronger and safer because of our iron-clad friendship. As president, I will never abandon Israel.”
Ramaswamy said in an interview with British actor and activist Russell Brand this month that his commitment would be to US interests only.
“There’s no North Star commitment to any one country other than the United States of America,” he said when asked about aid to Israel.
Ramaswamy, a billionaire entrepreneur who has no previous experience in politics, went on to say that he believes ties with Israel have been beneficial to the US.
But he added that he would push to get more Arab and Muslim countries to recognise Israel as part of Washington’s ongoing “normalisation” drive, so aid “won’t be necessary” for stability in the region.
Ramaswamy said he would honour the current memorandum of understanding — signed under former Democratic President Barack Obama — that grants Israel $3.8bn annually until it expires in 2028.
The candidate’s comments made headlines late last week, days after the interview had aired.
Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Israel, one of the richest countries in the Middle East, was the top recipient of US foreign aid.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have accused Israel of imposing apartheid — defined as systemic policies to ensure the dominance of one racial group over the other — against Palestinians.
Israel, however, has enjoyed strong bipartisan backing in the US, with Democratic President Joe Biden calling the two countries’ bond “unbreakable”.
Despite voicing support for Israel, Ramaswamy’s comments put him at odds with most Republicans, even foreign policy isolationists and opponents of foreign aid, who often carve out an exception for Israel.
For example, last year, Republican Senator Rand Paul proposed halting all foreign assistance administered through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for 10 years — except for money allocated for Israel.
Foreign aid, especially for Ukraine, is a contentious issue among Republicans.
But evangelical Christians, who support Israel for theological reasons, have grown into a major Republican constituency. Backing Israel has become a default for many Republican platforms.
Ramaswamy’s proposal to scale back aid for Israel comes as the candidate rises in the polls, making him a greater target for his Republican rivals.
An August survey from Emerson College puts support for Ramaswamy at 10 percent, tied with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has taken a more hardline approach to Israel.
DeSantis has prided himself on penalising companies that boycott Israel and falsely stated that the Palestinian West Bank is not occupied territory.
At the first presidential debate on Wednesday, Ramaswamy, Haley and DeSantis are all expected to take the stage to discuss their policy platforms.
But former President Donald Trump, who enjoys a massive lead among the Republican candidates, has confirmed that he will not take part in the event.
During his presidency, Trump pushed US policy further in favour of Israel, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem and recognising the country’s claims to Syria’s occupied Golan Heights.
Other candidates set to attend the debate include former Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Tim Scott and ex-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — all outspoken supporters of Israel.
Biden, who is widely expected to win his party’s presidential nomination in 2024, has also pushed on with Trump’s pro-Israel policies.