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GOP presidential hopefuls voice support for Israel, Pence drops out at Vegas summit

Support for U.S. aid to Israel and invectives against pro-Palestine demonstrations at U.S. colleges dominated speeches at the Republican Jewish Coalition event.
Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Sean Golonka
Sean Golonka
Election 2024

Las Vegas became the center of the Republican universe Saturday as most of the remaining GOP presidential primary field and top  Republicans descended on the Venetian for the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) leadership summit — an event dominated by the brewing war between Israel and Hamas. 

Speaking in front of more than 1,000 attendees, eight presidential candidates including former President Donald Trump, took the stage, each affirming full-throated support for Israel and denouncing pro-Palestine protests and antisemitic incidents on U.S. college campuses. 

Most candidates again found themselves on the fringes of a primary race that has continued to see Republican voters coalesce around Trump. One competitor — his former vice president, Mike Pence, announced the end of his primary bid at the close of his speech on Saturday — a move preceded by writing on the wall, including low polling numbers, but that still elicited audible gasps in the room.

As a final message, Pence urged the assembled Republicans to choose a standard-bearer who would not give into the whims of a foreign policy dominated by populism — a warning against the America First isolationism championed by Trump. 

“Will Republicans continue to be the party of the traditional conservative, that has defined our movement over the last 50 years?” Pence asked. “Or will our party follow the siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles?”

Having missed the state's Oct. 25 withdrawal deadline, Pence will still appear on the Nevada GOP primary ballot Feb. 6, with several other longshot candidates who have opted not to participate in the party-run caucus on Feb. 8.

Pence, who entered the race with a defense of his actions to thwart Trump's attempt to overturn the election, did not take the opportunity to call out the Republican frontrunner by name. Only one candidate who spoke Saturday did so — former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

The RJC summit has long been a fixture of the Republican speaking circuit, especially under the sponsorship of Republican megadonor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who died in 2021. 

His widow, Miriam Adelson, dramatically cut back contributions to Republican campaigns and super PACs in the 2022 midterms. Still, Adelson — a staunch Israel advocate — has been courted by top GOP presidential hopefuls including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Trump

The aftershocks of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and ensuing preparation for an Israeli invasion of Gaza permeated the Las Vegas summit. Attendees frequently cheered during speeches, holding up pre-printed signs emblazoned with “Beat Biden!” or “I stand with Israel” or “We are not alright.”

Still, no candidate made an effort to denounce instances of antisemitism within the Republican Party, including Trump’s association with Holocaust denier and white supremacist Nick Fuentes, with whom he dined last fall, or Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-GA) embrace of antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Several candidates did call out Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), part of a vocal minority of congressional Democrats who criticize U.S. military aid to Israel.

It also comes as Republicans nationwide have looked to push the Jewish electorate to the right, especially amid schisms over supporting Palestine. Jewish Americans have consistently been some of the Democratic Party’s most reliable voters — the Democratic nominee has won over two-thirds of Jewish voters in every presidential election since 1988.

“There's really only one party left in America that is unabashedly pro-Israel,” Ari Fleischer, an RJC board member and former White House press secretary told reporters Saturday. “Democrats have very uncomfortable splits they are trying to navigate, and they've earned these splits because the grassroots of the Democratic Party walked away from Israel 20 years ago. And the walk has gotten faster and more furious since.” 

Trump, Haley and DeSantis headline speech marathon

Though the RJC summit was ostensibly a platform for the eight candidates to make their case, Trump treated the event more like a rally — thanking individual supporters and looking ahead to the general election, spending no time talking about fellow Republicans and aiming his attacks at President Joe Biden. 

In a lengthy speech complete with diversions into the use of Jerusalem stone at the U.S. embassy in Israel, election margins in Hungary and even the movie “Silence of the Lambs”, Trump’s maintained throughout his remarks that the world was a dangerous place before and after his presidency, and that he alone can restore security.

“For four straight years, I kept America safe, I kept Israel safe, and I kept the world safe,” he said. “If I were president, the attack on Israel would never, ever have happened."

Trump echoed several policy proposals embraced by his challengers, including revoking student visas for international college students involved in anti-Israel protests. He also pledged to go further, including reinstating his travel ban on Muslim countries and imposing an ideological test on immigrants to ensure support for America and Israel.

Trump maintained that Jewish Americans were safer during his four years in office, saying, “We didn’t have one incident.” He did not mention that the deadliest massacre of Jews in U.S. history occurred in his second year in office, when a gunman murdered 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.  

The former president directed the bulk of his vitriol at Hamas and Iran, but had plenty of fire for Biden, whose “weakness caused the attack on Israel.” He criticized the Biden administration for enabling pro-Palestine protests on college campuses, linking aid to Israel with other national security priorities including Ukraine, and appeasing Iran.

Iran is a longtime supporter of Hamas, but as of yet there is no direct evidence it planned or ordered Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. 

Trump did not repeat criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or praise for Lebanese terror group Hezbollah’s intelligence capabilities,  two assertions made previously that received pushback from both Democrats and Republicans but were only mentioned by one other candidate on the RJC stage Saturday.

Painting a picture of a dangerous world without his leadership, Trump, to cheers, said Biden was bringing the nation to the brink of World War III — a reality only he could stop, if elected, with trademark braggadocio. 

“I reversed every single disaster Obama and Biden created, and it wasn't easy — but it was easier than I thought,” he said.

With many candidates focusing on a topic DeSantis has made his calling card — attacking public education policies related to the supposed rise of ‘woke’ ideology — he doubled down on his actions in Florida to crack down on some diversity initiatives and on chapters of campus group Students for Justice in Palestine.

“This whole thing of DEI, diversity, equity, and inclusion — that’s anti-Israel, it’s anti-Jewish, if you take that to the logical conclusion,” DeSantis said during his remarks Saturday.

He added that under his administration, Florida would refuse to accept any refugees from the Gaza Strip. Hamas’ attack on Israel, he said, underscores the need for harsher policies at the U.S.-Mexico border, a policy arena that DeSantis has taken a hardline position on, promising military action immediately upon his election. He predicted a forthcoming terrorist attack on the U.S. would be traced to a border crossing.

Haley, who has leapfrogged other challengers in the polls but remains 40 to 55 points behind Trump, was the only candidate to call out the frontrunner by name. She criticized him for recent comments calling Hezbollah “very smart” and saying Netanyahu had “let us down” during Trump’s administration. 

She praised Trump’s administration (in which she served) for several notable pro-Israel moves, including moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but also tried to position herself as the only candidate who could restore order to the international stage.

“Eight years ago, it was good to have a leader who broke things,” Haley said. “But right now, we need a leader who also knows how to put things back together. America needs a captain who will steady the ship, not capsize it."

Haley also made a case for continued U.S. support for Ukraine, an increasingly divisive position among Republicans but one that received cheers at the RJC. Trump has said he would end that war by forcing the principals to agree to a land settlement, seemingly indicating he would allow Russia to retain illegally seized territory. 

Haley cautioned against the anti-Ukraine trend, saying Ukraine and Israel’s cases share the responsibility of fighting against a new “unholy alliance” of Russia, China and Iran. 

“Those who would abandon Ukraine today are at risk of abandoning Israel tomorrow,” she said, to cheers.

Former Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen waves after he announced suspending his presidential campaign during the Republican Jewish Coalition Leadership Summit at the Venetian Conference Center on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Republican longshots jostle for attention

In a program with little breathing room between the eight candidates amid back-to-back speeches, longshot challengers sought different paths.

Several criticized university presidents for what they deemed moral equivocation in statements about the war, promising to cut federal funds to universities. 

“We have to cut out the rot of antisemitism from our society,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) said. “We need cultural chemotherapy to fight this cancer. To any student who is advocating for murder and terrorism, you should be expelled from the campus!”

Though many promised continued aid to Israel, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, quoting Israel’s first president David Ben-Gurion, framed Israel’s creation as a tale of the Jewish state necessarily standing on its own without an impulse to rely on foreign help. 

Ramaswamy came under fire for recent comments suggesting the U.S. provide Israel with a “diplomatic Iron Dome” rather than funding, a line he repeated Saturday.

Both Ramaswamy and DeSantis threw cold water on the idea of a two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution, an aim that has undergirded American policy in the region for decades.

“If Israel at long last wants to abandon the myth of a two state solution, Israel should go ahead,” Ramasawmy said, also supporting a harsher Israeli stance on Qatar, where Hamas leadership maintains a presence, including hosting a “Red Wedding” at the Four Seasons in Doha, a “Game of Thrones” reference to a devastating massacre.

And as Trump, DeSantis and Haley enjoyed multiple standing ovations, some minor candidates struggled to engage the crowd. Among them were former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a frequent Trump critic who received only scattered booing as he took the stage, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, whose speech veered away from Israel-related issues and toward more traditional stump speech fare. Some attendees began talking amongst themselves as Burgum was speaking.  

GOP presidential campaigns sprawl across Las Vegas

Earlier in the day at the Treasure Island hotel and casino, less than a mile north of the Venetian on the Las Vegas Strip, DeSantis attended a breakfast event hosted by the Nevada Republican Club and supportive super PAC Never Back Down — groups that have respectively criticized the Nevada Republican Party for holding a caucus even though there will be a primary election and also for changing the rules of the party’s Feb. 8 presidential caucus to allegedly benefit the leading candidate, Trump. That includes barring primary candidates from the caucus and prohibiting super PACs from being involved with the caucus.

DeSantis ultimately filed to run in the caucus alongside Trump, rather than the state-run primary on Feb. 6, despite his campaign’s similar criticisms. As Trump prepared for his own Saturday evening event in Las Vegas focused on ramping up caucus support, DeSantis implored attendees to sign “commit to caucus” cards and encouraged them to get other voters to do the same before February.

In interviews with The Nevada Independent, several Republican voters who attended the event expressed confusion over the competing elections, with some unaware that there would be both a primary and caucus. One DeSantis supporter, who identified himself only as Fred, described the situation as “ridiculous,” adding that the caucus appeared to be slanted toward Trump.

At his morning event, in a conversation with his longtime friend, former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, DeSantis placed a heavy focus on foreign policy. That included criticizing Biden for his handling of last year’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan, his approach to the Israel-Hamas conflict and his relationship with rival foreign power China. DeSantis particularly emphasized his view that China is a threat.

While also hitting on familiar beats, including railing against “wokeness” and pushing for American energy independence through more natural gas production, DeSantis touted his effort to charter flights for Americans in Israel who wished to return to the U.S. following the Hamas attack earlier this month. 


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