GOP 2024 presidential candidates traveling to the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual conference are facing a unique challenge this year: how to distinguish themselves from former President Donald Trump on their support and approach to defending Israel as the country’s war against Hamas rages on.
Trump remains extremely popular among Jewish conservatives, but some of his advisers privately have wondered whether there will be any fallout after the former president trashed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, once one of his closest foreign allies, over intelligence failures in the days after Hamas’ initial surprise terror attack on October 7 – a turn sparked in part by Trump’s belief that Netanyahu had been disloyal by recognizing President Joe Biden’s victory in 2020.
Trump’s comments could provide an opening for his primary opponents to differentiate themselves from the field’s front-runner as they face pressure to establish themselves as strong supporters of Israeli security without alienating the former president’s supporters.
Interviews with a dozen Republican donors, RJC board members and attendees to this year’s conference yielded a strong sense that the fighting in the Middle East has put into full view the persistence of antisemitism across the globe and in the United States. Those interviewed by CNN said they hoped to hear an acknowledgement from candidates on this and also how each candidate would handle the crisis differently than President Joe Biden. Since the fighting started Biden has advocated for providing wartime aid aide to Israel and humanitarian aid to Gaza, as well as denounced Hamas’ actions.
“I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of focus and attention on the current state of affairs in Israel. And while there are many foreign policy concerns related to the conflict in Israel, there have also been impacts here domestically from protests on our streets to impacts on college campuses,” RJC board member and former Rep. Lee Zeldin told CNN.
“There’s a lot of common support across the board amongst these presidential candidates for Israel, recognizing their inherent right of self-defense and valuing the alliance,” he said, adding that attendees also want to hear “an articulation” from candidates of how they will confront growing antisemitism on US soil.
For Trump, the dynamic is different. This is one of the few events the former president is planning to attend alongside the rest of the 2024 primary field. As the war between Israel and Hamas has continued, Trump has looked to establish himself as the candidate with the best record on Israeli security. He likes to tout that no such war like the one currently raging started under his watch. Trump has also made a habit of pointing out that his administration orchestrated the Abraham Accords, the set of bilateral agreements normalizing relations between Israel and several Arab countries. For years, the president has relished in pointing out that his administration moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
For RJC attendees, even those backing other candidates, Trump’s record as president on Israel casts a long shadow over the rest of the field. Some donors and attendees are skeptical that any support will shift after the 2024 candidates give speeches at the conference.
“You’re not swaying those people either way. The ones with Trump are with Trump, the ones with DeSantis are with DeSantis, and Nikki with Nikki,” a top fundraiser for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
Candidates slated to attend the conference in Las Vegas are Trump, DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, according to a schedule of the conference. All the 2024 candidates are slated to deliver remarks to the conference on Saturday. Other Republican elected officials on the schedule include Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Sens. Lindsey Graham, Rick Scott and John Thune, and Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo.
The RJC conference comes at a time when the Republican Party at large has been hammering Democrats and the Biden administration amid the war. Some of the president’s political rivals have sought to draw a direct line between Hamas’ sneak attack on Israel and the terms of the US-Iran prisoner deal struck by the administration earlier this year. Speaking at the conference offers a rare opportunity to demonstrate foreign policy credentials during a crisis that is holding the rest of the world’s attention.
There are also major Republican donors across the country who have declined to provide financial support to any of the candidates at this stage in the nomination fight. Among them is Miriam Adelson, the widow of Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson and a major RJC benefactor, an aide to Adelson confirms.
“The die has been cast at this point. I can’t think of any major person I would see as persuadable and at the end of the day, it’s all about Miriam, and I think she has cast her lot, and she’s not going to weigh in,” the DeSantis donor said, noting that Trump gave Adelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The former president will face some of the country’s most prominent and conservative Jews when he takes the stage Saturday – weeks after he criticized Netanyahu following Hamas’ savage surprise attack on Israel earlier this month.
“I think we will know if there’s a problem when we get to RJC,” one Trump ally told CNN.
Trump and his team faced enormous backlash when the former president lashed out at Netanyahu.
“(Netanyahu) has been hurt very badly because of what’s happened here. He was not prepared. He was not prepared, and Israel was not prepared,” Trump told Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade in an interview October 11.
Trump went further at a campaign event in West Palm Beach, Florida the same night.
“You talk about the intelligence, or you talk about some of the things that went wrong over the last week, they’ve got to straighten it out because they’re fighting potentially a very big force,” Trump said during what was intended to be a speech highlighting his accomplishments in the Middle East and pledging his unequivocal support for Israel.
Multiple sources acknowledged that it was immediately clear that his negative remarks would overshadow the point of the speech and receive backlash.
Sources said that privately Trump initially insisted that he was not wrong in making the remarks, noting that they were true. Almost immediately, his team began fielding calls from allies upset about the remarks.
The campaign began damage control, putting out a series of statements praising the Trump administration’s work in the Middle East.
“There was no better friend or ally of Israel than President Donald J. Trump,” Trump said in a statement. “Under my leadership, the United States stood in complete solidarity with Israel, and as a result, Israel was safe, America was safe, and for the first time in decades, we made historic strides for Peace in the Middle East.”
“#IstandWithIsrael #IstandWithBibi,” read another post.
Foreign policy stances
In the lead-up to the conference, the candidates have generally refrained from bashing one another directly on their response to Israel’s war on Hamas, instead opting to contrast the Republican Party with Democrats and the Biden administration. Candidates also have looked to differentiate themselves on Israel policy.
DeSantis has touted his unique ability to use his position as a sitting governor to help Israel in the aftermath of the attack – including sending planes to evacuate Americans from the country and transporting into the region drones, body armor and helmets procured by Israel as it prepares for a ground invasion of Gaza, CNN previously reported. Additionally, DeSantis and the State University System of Florida recently ordered two Florida universities to deactivate their chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine.
Some of the candidates slated to speak during the conference are instead looking to flex their foreign policy knowledge and cast the primary as one between a more isolationist set of candidates and a more interventionist wing.
“Nikki has a long and strong record of standing with Israel and against antisemitism,” Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokesperson for Haley, told CNN in a statement. “As the world becomes less safe, she’ll talk about why we need a president with moral clarity who knows the difference between good and evil.”
Oftentimes, party conferences are essentially cattle calls for a specific wing of a political party. NetRoots Nation has been something of a national rallying event for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and the Conservative Political Action Conference has become a gathering of some of the most fervent Trump-aligned Republicans in recent years. Attendees expect this year’s RJC conference to be different from that pattern, with candidates getting the chance to highlight their stance on a specific foreign policy area.
Ari Fleischer, a member of the RJC board of directors and former press secretary for George W. Bush, argued that the conference is a big opportunity for former UN ambassador Haley in particular, who made Israel’s defense her marquee issue as Trump’s top diplomat to the United Nations.
“Having Trump show up for something and having Nikki in a very friendly group – a little more predisposed to her than to President Trump even though they love President Trump, this is a huge opportunity for her to shine,” Fleischer said. “She’s on the way up and this can help. Now, layer Gaza in on top of it, it makes it even more electric. It’s life and death for many people in that room. Especially for their family members.”
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com