WASHINGTON -- Each of the three top Republican presidential contenders will have the opportunity Wednesday to clarify or walk back recent controversial statements about U.S. policy toward Israel when they meet at a Republican Jewish Coalition forum in the nation's capital.
Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry all said during a debate in South Carolina last month that if elected president, they would cut U.S. foreign aid levels. This was during discussion of aid to Pakistan, a questionable ally which received billions in military and development aid from the United States throughout the years when Osama bin Laden took refuge under the noses of government troops.
Israel, however, is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign aid -- approximately $3 billion per year -- and the GOP hopefuls' comments sparked outrage from some advocates of the Jewish state.
During the South Carolina debate, Perry declared that "the foreign aid budget in my administration, for every country, is going to start at zero dollars. Zero dollars. And then we'll have a conversation." Romney and Gingrich quickly agreed that it was a sensible policy.
Asked later that night whether his plan would include Israel, Perry stuck to his guns. "Obviously Israel is a special ally," he said, "and my guess is we would be funding them at a high level. But everyone should come in at zero."
For their parts, Gingrich and Romney quickly backtracked, casting Israel as an exception. But the damage was done: Democrats seized on the comments, with Democratic National Committee chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) hammering Republicans on the issue for weeks.
At Wednesday's forum, Gingrich, Romney, and Perry -- joined by rival candidates Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Jon Huntsman -- will each get the chance to address a politically friendly audience of Jewish Republican voters and community leaders. New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie will be the guest of honor at lunch.
One candidate, however, will be notably absent: Ron Paul, who calls in no uncertain terms for an end to all U.S. foreign aid.
In an interview with Washington Jewish Week, RJC executive director Matt Brooks said the group "rejects [Paul's] misguided and extreme views." Brooks called on the Republican candidates to pledge that they would continue President Barack Obama's 10-year Memorandum of Understanding, which guarantees Israel approximately $3 billion annually in U.S. foreign aid.
In addition to pushing back against Democratic criticism, Brooks said he expects the candidates to "use this an opportunity to clearly articulate their vision for Israel and the challenges in the Middle East, as well as how they plan to lead the country forward out of these challenging economic times."
That last point is crucial. Jewish voters tend to favor Democrats -- 78 percent voted for Obama in 2008 -- and the president's general-election opponent will have to appeal to voters on a broader range of issues.
Brooks's counterpart on the left, David Harris, who heads the National Jewish Democratic Council, said in a statement that he didn't expect the GOP hopefuls to cross "the wide chasm separating today's Republican Party from the vast majority of American Jews." At Wednesday's forum, he said, candidates are "likely to reiterate their pledges to repeal health care reform, slash the social safety net, and irresponsibly lower taxes," policy positions which, according to Harris, "are not shared by the mainstream of American Jewry."
The daylong forum will be held, fittingly, at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in downtown Washington.