Haley offers scathing criticism of Trump at Jewish Republican event in Las Vegas

A series of speeches by Republican presidential candidates Saturday to a large gathering of Jewish donors and activists showed how the escalating conflict in the Middle East has elevated foreign policy to a dominant campaign issue and exposed new divisions within the primary contest.

Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, attacked former President Donald J. Trump as “confused” about the threats facing the United States and Israel. Mr Trump has vowed to fight “jihadists, terrorists, Marxists” abroad and at home. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis condemned the “false moral equivalence” between the deaths of Hamas and Israel.

The remarks to the Republican Jewish Coalition, held at the sprawling Venetian Convention Center in Las Vegas, came as Israel expanded its ground operations in Gaza, at a critical time for the primary contest. With Mr. Trump far ahead in the polls, time is running out for his opponents to stand out. And Ms. Haley and his other rivals see new opportunities in his clumsy response to attacks in Ukraine and Israel, which threaten to spill over into broader regional conflicts.

Mr. Trump, who spoke last, ignored the other candidates during his remarks, focusing squarely on attacking President Biden as weak while arguing that the world would be safer if he were still in the White House.

“If I were president, the attack on Israel would never have happened,” he told the 1,500 people who packed the hall. “I think you believe that. Ukraine would never happen. Inflation would never happen.”

Mr Trump struck the most militaristic tone of the speakers, warning attendees of threats from “a lot of strong young people” coming into the country who are “the same people who attacked Israel”. He also praised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a neo-authoritarian leader admired by far-right nationalists in the United States and Europe who has been accused of using anti-Semitic tropes for political gain.

In his comments, Mr Trump took a similar line to Mr Orban – “a very strong man”, he said – promising to protect the country with threats of force.

“If you spill a drop of American blood, we’ll spill a gallon of yours,” he said, arguing that the world had become less safe under Mr. Biden’s leadership. “I will defend America, and I will defend Western civilization against the barbarians, savages and fascists that you now see trying to harm our beautiful Israel.”

Mr. Trump did not comment on the exit from the race of his former vice president, Mike Pence, who announced he was ending his presidential bid before Mr. Trump took the stage. In the final speech of his campaign, Mr. Pence warned his party against adopting an isolationist foreign policy – like the policies put forward by Vivek Ramaswamy, who preceded him on the stage.

The annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition was perhaps the highest-profile gathering of the fall Republican primary season, which took on added urgency after Hamas’s attack on Israel three weeks ago. Last week, the organization was added as a sponsor of the third Republican debate, a reflection of how Israel has united a broad coalition of party voters and officials, including foreign policy hawks, business leaders and evangelical Christians.

It’s also a boost for Republican officials: At the last minute, the event’s schedule was changed to accommodate the first national appearance by House Speaker-elect Mike Johnson, who will address the group Saturday night.

Ms. Haley used her address to launch some of the sharpest attacks of the 2024 primary election, questioning Mr. Trump’s ability to manage the foreign affairs of a country facing multiple military entanglements abroad. She pointed out that the former president’s statements criticizing Israel’s intelligence service and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were weak just days after the attack.

“As president, I will not give compliments to Hezbollah. Nor will I criticize the Israeli prime minister in the midst of tragedy and war. We don’t have time for personal vendettas,” she told a crowd of donors, activists and officials. “With all due respect, I’m not confused.”

Ms. Haley, known for her staunch support for Israel as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, is rising in the polls after two strong debate performances.

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

All eight candidates who emerged offered strong support for Israel, pledging to support military operations and combat growing anti-Semitic threats at home, particularly on college campuses.

Of all the candidates, only Mr. Ramaswamy qualified his support, signaling that he would be less inclined to provide military support to the Israelis to escalate the conflict. The entrepreneur and author tried to win over the audience, breaking into the music of Matisyahu, a noted Jewish hip-hop artist, reciting verses of a Jewish prayer in Hebrew and freely quoting David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister.

In his address, which included a meandering retelling of Israel’s modern military history, Mr. Ramaswamy sought to recast a more isolationist stance as support for Israel’s right to self-defense.

“If Israel wants to destroy Hamas, it should go ahead and destroy Hamas,” he said. “But these are decisions that should be made by Israel, not America. I am not running for president of Israel. I’m running for president of the United States.”

Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey who has been Trump’s main antagonist on the campaign trail for months, struck a more somber tone in his remarks, saying “this is too serious a moment for pettiness.”

Mr. Christie and Mr. Ramaswamy were the only candidates whose speeches were met with thunderous boos, albeit from different corners of the audience: Mr. Christie was targeted by Trump supporters, and Mr. Ramaswamy was widely criticized for his reluctance to provide military support.

Mr. Trump entered Saturday as a crowd favorite, favored for his record on Israel as president, which included moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and signing the Abraham Accords, a deal normalizing relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. He has also cut off aid to the Palestinians, and his administration has taken steps to declare the campaign to boycott Israel anti-Semitic.

But his criticism of Israeli intelligence and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as weak just days after the attack, and his description of the Hezbollah attackers as “very smart”, drew attacks from his rivals.

Amid expressions of concern and solidarity for one of America’s closest allies, Republican politicians saw political opportunity in the divisions the conflict opened up at home.

Several speakers on Saturday disparaged progressive Democratic MPs, particularly MPs Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, whose names drew loud boos from the audience. Others spoke of tensions on college campuses, where students clashed over the war.

“Progressives say they’re all about safety and the feelings of minorities, the oppressed, the marginalized,” said Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. “But when it comes to Jewish Americans who are hurt – they are silent.”

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