Campaigning this week in Iowa, Republican Sen. Rand Paul said he'd never proposed cutting off U.S. aid payments to Israel. It didn't take long for Paul to be confronted by his own statements from 2011, when he offered a budget plan that called for ending such aid to all nations, including Israel.
It's a row that's cast a shadow of sorts over Paul's three-day swing through Iowa, where he's campaigning for Republican candidates while tending to his own 2016 ambitions. That includes working to overcome what might be his greatest political challenge: convincing the GOP — and its most powerful donors — that he's not simply a younger version of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Rand Paul isn't the first prospective White House candidate to find himself ensnared by questions of Middle East policy and politics in middle America. Among them, then-Sen. Barack Obama, who told an eastern Iowa Democratic audience in 2007 that "no one is suffering more than the Palestinian people."
Such pitfalls are part of the delicate dance of prospective presidential candidates. They are pressed by reporters and voters for answers, even as they are developing policy acumen on the fly.
On Tuesday, Paul told The Associated Press that stories suggesting he wants to end aid to Israel imply, "I'm this senator out to target Israel." His past ideas about foreign aid, he said, focused on the money given to all nations.
"It's all a general discussion about spending money you don't have," he said, arguing that even Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu has said he welcomes the day when Israel is independent of American aid.
"Ultimately, he'd like to see Israel independent," Paul told the AP en route to campaign for Republican candidates in eastern Iowa.
Paul's ideas about foreign aid have evolved since 2011. On a visit to Israel last year, Paul gave a speech calling for a gradual reduction of foreign aid — despite Israel's status as one of the top recipients of American assistance. The country gets about $3 billion a year in military aid from the U.S.
"It will harder to be a friend of Israel if we are out of money. It will be harder to defend Israel if we destroy our country in the process," he told the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, an Israeli think tank, in February 2013.
Although not without differences, the episode recalls Obama's second trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate in March 2007, when he told pro-Palestinian relief activists that he supported relaxing restrictions on U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
"Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people," Obama said. "What I'd like to see is a loosening up of some of the restrictions on providing aid directly to the Palestinian people."
The comments were little noticed at first, but they quickly became relevant as the 2008 presidential prospect just days later addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual conference in Washington. Obama was criticized as clumsy for making the statement on the eve of the AIPAC convention.
It also fed the story line that Obama, then a first-term U.S. senator from Illinois, was the inexperienced contender in a race that would become an epic Democratic campaign with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat was eager to contrast Obama's resume with her own.
Rand Paul holds libertarian positions similar to his father's, but he has reached out to younger and more diverse voters as he works to enhance his standing among the GOP's leading foreign policy thinkers.
He has privately sought the counsel of people like Dan Senor, a former foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign who is close to Netanyahu. But many powerful donors, including one of the GOP's best-known pro-Israel allies, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, remain skeptical. So, too, do some voters in Iowa.
"It is important for me that a candidate is pro-Israel," said Gwen Ecklund, a county GOP chairwoman in Republican-heavy western Iowa. "There is probably some foreign aid that can be phased out. But not to like-minded countries that depend on us."
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