New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continued his efforts to put the Bridge-gate scandal behind him on Saturday with a strong attack on President Barack Obama's leadership while emphasizing his support for Israel at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas.
But the embattled governor later had to apologize for his use of the phrase "occupied territories" while talking about the West Bank, Politico first reported.
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Describing a trip he and his family once made to Israel, Christie said that they "took a helicopter ride from the occupied territories across and just felt personally how extraordinary that was to understand, the military risk that Israel faces every day.”
The use of the term “occupied territories” immediately set off murmurs in the crowd, Politico reported.
The term refers to lands in which Palestinians live but where Israel maintains a military presence. While it is a phrase often used in international diplomacy, it is rejected by many conservative Zionists like Adelson, who see it as validating Palestinian challenges over Israel’s presence.
"We need to start with strong and decisive leadership at the top that understands that every signal you send as a leader is read and interpreted," the 2016 Republican presidential hopeful said during an afternoon speech to powerful Jewish donors. "All the people who watch you and rely upon you for leadership will read every sign and signal.
"The dysfunction in Washington, D.C., is no longer being emulated around the world," he added. "It is being mocked around the world as a government that cannot get out of its own way because people won't come together to work together and will not stand for principles that they believe in in a way that leads us get things done.
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"If we want to once again be the leader of the world, we have to have our government be one that people around the world … want to emulate, want to be like," he said to applause.
"We cannot have a world where our friends are unsure of whether we will be with them and our enemies are unsure of whether we will be against them," Christie later said. "In New Jersey, nobody has to wonder whether I'm for them or against them."
Christie was among several 2016 presidential hopefuls who spoke at the coalition's spring meeting, which was held at the Venetian Resort and Hotel owed by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, 80, who poured $98 million into the 2012 elections.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton were also among those 2016 hopefuls seeking to woo Adelson's backing.
During the 2012 elections, Adelson gave $20 million to Winning Our Future, a super PAC that backed Newt Gingrich's presidential bid before he quit
— and then poured $30 million into the Restore Our Future super PAC supporting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
With a net worth of $38 billion, Adelson recently placed eighth on the annual Forbes billionaires list. He is firmly pro-Israel and believes in a strong national defense — and his associates say Adelson is seeking a 2016 presidential candidate with broad electoral appeal.
House Speaker John Boehner attended the coalition's board meeting on Friday and discussed the GOP's push to hold onto the lower chamber this November and to win the six seats needed to take control of the Senate.
In his Saturday speech, Walker conceded that he lacked extensive global experience. He did, however, call for a more consistent foreign policy — reflecting upon lessons he learned from raising his family.
"We make sure with both parents and grandparents that we were unified," Walker said. "We didn't waver. We didn't allow our sons to push the line."
Adelson did not attend Walker's speech, but entered shortly after Christie's began.
The New Jersey governor's Vegas appearance marked a concentrated effort to put Bridge-gate behind him. That campaign began on Thursday, when a 360-page report commissioned by his office
cleared him in the lane closures that snarled traffic for days on the George Washington Bridge last September.
The report, by a law firm with longstanding ties to Christie and paid for by taxpayers at $650 an hour, blamed the debacle on two of the governor's former aides. The document also portrayed Christie as a careful yet emotional leader who looked into the eyes of his top staffers as he asked what they knew about the lane closures.
Democrats blasted the report as one-sided, incomplete and designed to exonerate Christie.
The closings have been criticized as political payback to Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who refused to endorse Christie's re-election bid last year. The debacle had clouded the governor's 2016 presidential chances.
Then on Friday, Christie sparred with reporters at his first news conference since he accepted blame for Bridge-gate in January. He had announced that David Samson, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, had resigned — marking the first high-level departure in the scandal.
Christie was combative — even dismissing some reporters' questions — during the hour-long session. His demeanor was far different in January, when he appeared contrite and humbled as he accepted responsibility for the scandal. That session lasted two hours.
He also held extensive interviews with Megyn Kelly of Fox News and ABC's Diane Sawyer, saying the report marked his return to prime time presidential politics.
In Las Vegas, Christie spoke and took questions for more than 40 minutes, spurring three standing ovations and bursts of applause from more than 400 of the coalition's top donors in the packed ballroom.
Besides attacking President Obama on various fronts, Christie pitched himself as an example Republicans can follow as the party seeks to broaden its appeal.
The governor said that in his re-election victory last November, exit polls showed he received 51 percent of New Jersey's Hispanic vote and increased his share of African-American support to 21 percent from 7 percent four years earlier.
"We need to go out to places where we're uncomfortable and to listen," Christie said. "Where you spend your time is the greatest indicator of respect."
Questions from the audience were submitted in advance and selected by coalition staff — and Matt Brooks, the organization's executive director, asked Christie about the lessons he had learned from the Bridge-gate scandal.
"It is always confidence-shaking and disappointing when people that you trust let you down," Christie said. "As a leader of an organization, you're ultimately responsible for that.
"I am going to be responsible for all that happens on my watch," he added. "For people in government and people who are intent on providing leadership to a state or to our country, it's strong and decisive action or lack thereof that does define ultimately who you are and what kind of leader you are."
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The Associated Press and Bloomberg contributed to this report.
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