By Ray Hanania
For most candidates who want to become president of the US, the debate over Israel will focus almost exclusively on who supports it the most aggressively.
Candidates who embrace the international rule of law, true democracy and compromise based on fairness — meaning that they also support Palestinian rights — will find themselves either cast off as being “fringe” long shots who have no chance of winning or, if their campaign does have some substance, denounced as antisemitic.
The powerful pro-Israel lobby and its influential friends will pour money into demonizing those candidates and bolstering any rival who blindly embraces Israel and ignores its civil rights abuses.
However, a candidate will occasionally rise above the name-calling and mudslinging to put America’s interests and the principles of democracy above Israel’s bullying.
So, you can probably imagine the pro-Israel tsunami that has confronted Republican nomination candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who advocates what reasoned minds might describe as a sensible approach to this issue: As Israel becomes more and more accepted in the Arab world, why does it continue to need financial support from American taxpayers?
Ramaswamy was considered one of the surprise winners of the first Republican presidential debate last month in his first national TV appearance. Ramaswamy, who is Indian American, made it clear that he supports the US above all foreign countries, including Israel, which is often treated like it is America’s unofficial 51st state.
Since the Second World War, Israel has received more US funding than any other foreign nation. Every president has approved of funding Israel, in part because the country’s lobby has been so effective in financing the campaigns of political candidates for Congress that few office-holders — in fact very few — challenge that American largesse.
It is not just money that the US sends to Israel. It also provides benefits, including making it the first foreign country to be given the most advanced fighter jet in the world, the F-35, a fifth-generation stealth aircraft.
Israel has received more than $158 billion in financial aid since 1948. Now, many elected officials, along with Ramaswamy, wonder if it should continue to receive this funding amid today’s difficult economic climate. Ramaswamy last month explained his view that the US should end financial aid to Israel when the current deal expires in 2028, as by then it would have expanded its peace accords with Arab countries. He said: “Come 2028, that additional aid won’t be necessary in order to still have the kind of stability that we’d actually have in the Middle East by having Israel more integrated in with its partners.”
However, in the wake of a backlash from America’s pro-Israel mainstream media, Ramaswamy subsequently said that he would continue to provide funding “as long as Israel tells us so.”
He was obviously put on the defensive by pro-Israel activists who challenged his view, which was unorthodox for a Republican. He was forced to stress that he supports Israel and would not stop it from defending itself.
Of course, to become president, Ramaswamy will have to win the Republican primary and then defeat President Joe Biden, who is seeking a second term, in next year’s election.
But the very fact that Ramaswamy has suggested an end date for America’s huge financial giveaway to Israel has created a wave of support from voters, who believe this funding should be used to help needy Americans first. This debate is especially pertinent as many Republicans are beginning to question the billions of dollars being sent to Ukraine to help it confront Russia’s military aggression.
Ramaswamy got so much attention for his comments on Israel and his sterling performance during the first Republican presidential debate that many of the other candidates have shifted a large part of their attacks toward him and away from indicted former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Ramaswamy, the son of Hindu immigrants from India, will only be 39 at the time of the 2024 election, meaning he would be the youngest ever American president if he were to win. That youth is seen as an asset in this presidential race, as Biden continues to face questions about his age. Biden, the oldest person to be elected president, was 78 at his inauguration. His image has suffered from his many speech stumbles, name mix-ups and the times he has read out the teleprompter notes that are written to guide him and not be spoken.
Arab and Muslim Americans can connect with Ramaswamy on many levels, including as a first-generation son of immigrants in a nation that sometimes has a hard time distinguishing between Palestinians and Pakistanis. Ramaswamy is even being attacked by the same people who have attacked Arab Americans, like former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is the daughter of Indian Sikh parents but who converted to Christianity.
Haley is vehemently pro-Israel and was the driving force behind the Trump administration’s repeated failed attempts to push UN resolutions that condemned alleged Palestinian violence as “terrorism” while turning a blind eye to Israeli violence.
The fact is that Arab Americans generally do not fare well in American politics, especially in national elections, despite a few wins here and there. They lack a strong voice to advocate for justice and, when they criticize Israel, they are condemned as antisemitic.
Even though Biden has reached out to support Arab and Muslim Americans, this has been countered by his very strong support for Israel. Nearly all the Arab Americans he has appointed to White House and State Department positions have been effectively muzzled, presumably to prevent them from saying anything that might provoke the ire of Israel.
But any candidate, especially a Republican, who dares to challenge the billions of dollars in aid given to Israel deserves Arab and Muslim consideration. Now let’s see if he backtracks any further on the issue.