Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who is a standard-bearer for libertarian causes, may be already gearing up for a 2016 presidential bid. One of the things American presidential hopefuls traditionally do is visit Israel -- and that's what Paul just did, recently spending a week touring America's special friend in the Middle East.
But, in a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Paul expounded on the "arrogance" and "presumptiveness" of American politicians who "stroll through Jerusalem, telling people where to build."
The son of former Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul isn't a typical Republican when it comes to Israel policy. For one thing, just like his father, he wants to end all U.S. foreign aid -- and that includes aid to Israel. He didn't, however, go to Israel to bluntly tell his hosts that under a President Paul they would not see a penny. He framed the issue in savvy, politically defensible terms.
Speaking of the controversial plans to build Jewish settlements in the E-1 section of the West Bank east of Jerusalem, Rand told reporters that he had seen the maps of the planned development, "but it's not an American politician's business to be dictating Israel's or the settlement's business."
Rand, who sits on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, hammered home the point that he thought Americans should not be telling Israel what to do, and therefore, by extension, the U.S. should eventually start cutting back its aid to Israel. After all, he said, "when American politicians presume they know how to bring peace to Middle East by telling others how to behave, they misunderstand that nobody can really know as much as those who live in that region." And this political arrogance, Rand said, is a good reason Israelis "should want to become more independent, and not dependent on aid from the U.S."
Per the 1979 Camp David Accords, the U.S. provides $3 billion in military aid to Israel every year (and billions to Egypt). Paul, both in Israel and speaking to reporters Wednesday, said he didn't believe America could truly be a friend to Israel while running a huge deficit of its own. "I want to be a strong friend to Israel," Rand said, "but they can't get a blank check.
"I've always said our number one threat to national security is our debt," he continued. "Foreign aid is something most Americans don't understand. Why are we sending money to foreign countries who burn our flag?
"I didn't see anyone in Israel burning our flag," Rand quickly added, but, "I'm of the opinion that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu had in 1996 that it would be better for Israel to become independent."
The problem is complicated by the presence, next door to Israel, of an Arab nation that is officially at peace with Israel but has a new, Islamist-influenced government that isn't especially friendly to the Jewish state: Egypt. And Egypt is the other great recipient of American military aid, including advanced jet fighters whose transfer was announced Tuesday. Which was, according to Paul, "a big mistake" that could start fueling an arms race. "We sell 20 F-16s to Egypt, and Israel is going to say they need 25," he said. "It makes it more expensive for Israel to defend herself."
Paul also pointed out that Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's support of a Muslim cleric who made anti-Israel and anti-Semitic remarks, and Morsi own such statements, should be "of concern to those who support Israel." As for Israel's neighbor to the northeast, Syria, Paul is concerned that the world may be about to see a more anti-Israel government there. "I've been skeptical and hesitant to arm Syrian rebels," he said, pointing toward rising concerns about the presence of al-Qaeda and other Islamist activity among the ranks of the anti-government factions.
But in the face of all these problems, the senator -- elected in 2010 in the tea party-fueled surge that helped Republicans to a resounding victory in the midterm elections -- still isn't convinced that America should be engaged in securing the Middle East, where most of the world's oil comes from. "I'm not against U.S. participation," he said. "We all have opinions, and there are valid arguments on all sides to be heard, but I don't think we should dictate terms."
And because U.S. politicians can't really go to Israel without being reminded of what's going on back home in Washington, Paul was asked the inevitable question on how he will vote when the Senate decides whether to confirm the nomination of ex-Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., whom President Barack Obama wants for his next defense secretary. Paul deflected several questions on Hagel, who has been taking flak for statements that his detractors allege point toward latent anti-Israel feelings. He finally said he "hadn't decided yet on Hagel," and that he was "open to hearing his viewpoints."