Syria and Rand Paul's Israel Problem

He has cast himself as a defender of the Jewish state, but his anti-interventionist stance puts him at odds with both the Israeli government and leading American Jewish groups.
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In January, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul made his first visit to the state of Israel, where he attended his first Shabbat dinner, saw the Sea of Galilee and visited the Western Wall.

The trip, according to a National Review piece, "was one turning point in the transformation of Rand Paul from libertarian gadfly to viable presidential candidate," an effort undertaken by "a group of Evangelicals and Jews determined to help get Paul right with Israel."

They may have to try again: Any good will he may have built up with that trip seems poised to vanish as Paul now finds himself on the opposite side of major Jewish groups, pro-Israel lobbyists, and the expressed opinion of the government of Israel when it comes to supporting a U.S. strike on Syria.

Already by June, Paul was being condemned in Haaretz as "The single greatest danger to Israel’s standing in the U.S." for his desire to end all foreign aid, including aid to Israel. In July, he riled feathers at Jewish and conservative pro-Israel groups when he temporarily defended his neo-Confederate aide and book co-author Jack Hunter.

Now, between toying with the idea of filibustering the Senate vote authorizing use force in Syria (a position he's subsequently walked back), his contention that there's little difference between deaths from chemical weapons or bullets, and his invocation, during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday, of concern for Israel as his reason to vote against a U.S. intervention that Israel backs, Paul seems certain to once again cement his place as someone standing way outside the mainstream of pro-Israel thinking on the right.

"Is it more or less likely that Israel will be attacked? I think there are valid arguments for saying the region will be more unstable if we get a superpower involved in a civil war, more unstable for Israel if we get a superpower involved and the Syrians feel like they have to show Israel something, or Iran gets involved," Paul told reporters after the Senate hearing. He elaborated on his opposition in a Time magazine piece Thursday.

And while the continuum of pro-Israel thinking in the U.S. encompasses a diverse array of opinions, it is the thinking on the right side of the political spectrum that will matter for the junior Paul when it comes to making a 2016 potential presidential bid. "Rand Paul is a guy who wouldn't support U.S. military action to stop Iran from getting a nuke, or to defend our ally Israel if Iran were to attack them, so it's no surprise he won't support military action to stop Assad from using WMD, either, let alone to ensure American leadership or credibility in the world," said one official with a pro-Israel organization.

The Republican senator's "lack of understanding of the world, let alone America's role in it or our interest in Israel's security, is so profoundly confused that [it] has disqualified himself from being taken seriously in the conversation," he said.
 
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Conservative Jewish and Pro-Israel groups have shown remarkable unanimity on the subject of a strike. The Republican Jewish Coalition issued an action alert this week in support of the use of force resolution. So has AIPAC, the main pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States. "AIPAC urges Congress to grant the President the authority he has requested to protect America’s national security interests and dissuade the Syrian regime's further use of unconventional weapons," the group said in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon.  "Simply put, barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass .... That is why America must act."

The lobbying group also issued an action alert, urging supporters to write letters to members of the House and Senate calling on them to "grant the President the authority he has requested to protect America’s national security interests and dissuade Damascus from further chemical weapons use." And it is preparing to launch an unusual effort to lobby members of Congress on behalf of the Syria resolution -- something it did not do for either the war in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Israeli leaders had "remained completely quiet on how they thought the US or the west should respond," The Jerusalem Post reported earlier this week. But that changed late Tuesday, when Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren posted on Facebook: "Israel agrees with President Obama that the use of chemical weapons is a 'heinous act' for which the Assad regime must be held accountable and for which there must be 'international consequences.'"

Other major Jewish groups also weighed in. “Those who perpetuate such acts of wanton murder must know that they cannot do so with impunity,” the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represents 52 national Jewish agencies, said in a statement backing the use of force. "We welcome President Obama’s demonstration of U.S. leadership in responding to the use of chemical weapons in Syria," said Barry Curtiss-Lusher and Abraham H. Foxman, national chair and director, respectively, of the Anti-Defamation League in a statement. "We support the president’s decision."

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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