LAS VEGAS (AP) — Republican presidential candidates professed their strong support for Israel on Saturday as they addressed an influential Republican Jewish group during a campaign stop that coincided with Israel’s stepped-up offensive in the war against Hamas and included the exit of a high-profile contender from the 2024 race.
Former Vice President Mike Pence used his last speech as a candidate to emphasize his traditional Republican views of a robust U.S. foreign policy that contrasts with the “America First” positions taken by his old boss, former President Donald Trump, the current front-runner for the nomination.
Pence did not mention Trump while announcing he would drop out of the race. But he called on Democratic President Joe Biden to unconditionally support Israel’s incursion into Gaza, which was launched in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that resulted in more than 1,000 deaths. Israel has targeted the Palestinian enclave with airstrikes and cut off power and communications as it mounts an operation against the militant group.
Pence, after announcing his decision, urged the crowd at the Republican Jewish Coalition summit to “hold fast” to faith, family and the U.S. Constitution and he promoted America’s role “as leader of the free world.”
Trump, who in the past has received an enthusiastic reception from the Jewish group, was scheduled to speak in the afternoon, the final White House hopeful to take the stage at the annual gathering.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy were among backing the unequivocal right for Israel to defend itself after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. They also criticized Democratic officials and liberals for what they saw as a failure to sufficiently condemn antisemitism across the United States.
The Republicans made their pitches in Las Vegas hours after Israel expanded its ground operation into Gaza.
The gathering at a casino-resort on the Las Vegas Strip has typically offered an opportunity for GOP hopefuls to try to reach Jewish voters and showcase political backing of Israel, a priority for the party and its base, including Christian evangelicals. But this year’s summit comes as Israel has been plunged in crisis and put on war footing.
Scott, who frequently invokes his Christian faith, called the actions of Hamas “evil personified” and cited from the Book of Proverbs, saying, “As a Christian, I see the Jewish people as my elder brothers and sisters in faith.”
Ramaswamy, long criticized by Pence as inexperienced and wrong on foreign policy, has at times been questioned by conservatives for his views on Israel. His speech was filled with bellicose rhetoric, claiming he “would love nothing more” than for the Israeli military “to put the heads of the top 100 Hamas leaders on stakes and line them up on the Israel-Gaza border.”
He also Israel should abandon “the myth of a two-state solution ” — with a Palestinian state alongside Israel — if it wants, which drew cheers.
Though the crowd of about 1,000 coalition donors was not waring red yarmulkes with the word “Trump,” as in years past, their support of him was on display early. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has made criticizing Trump central to his campaign, took the stage and was met with immediate boos.
The organization’s longtime benefactor, billionaire casino mogul and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, became a big backer of Trump and implored coalition members to support Trump in 2016.
Adelson died in 2021. His widow, Miriam Adelson, has remained a major party donor but has pledged to stay neutral in the primary.
Many of the candidates criticized President Joe Biden, especially for a $6 billion transfer to Iran as part of a deal to release five U.S. citizens detained in Iran, which administration officials insist had not been spent.
Biden made a wartime visit to Israel this month to show support for the Israelis while also trying to blunt the war from expanding into to a broader regional conflict. Back in the U.S., Biden has asked Congress for billions of dollars in military assistance for Israel and Ukraine, linking the wars as larger global threats and that stopping Hamas and Russia are important for America’s national security.
In their remarks, most of the candidates pledged robust support for Israel. Few touched on Ukraine.
Ramaswamy, who has at times criticized U.S. aid to Israel, said he personally funded a 200-seat charter flight to get Americans out of Israel, similar to the actions a rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, had his state take.
Ramaswamy drew boos when he said America’s job “is to be strong at home, to mind our own affairs, to avoid foreign military entanglements that do not relate directly to our homeland here.”
Scott called the actions of Hamas “evil personified” and spoke about his work in the Senate on antisemitism legislation. He accused liberal politicians of failing to speak up enough about the marginalization and oppression of Jewish Americans.
When Scott brought up U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., the crowd booed. The lone Palestinian American in Congress has called for a cease-fire and reevalution of U.S. military aid to Israel over concerns it could be used to commit war crimes. She has been widely criticized by members of both parties who say she hasn’t explicitly faulted Hamas for the attack.
Scott said of Democrat: “They would rather embrace antisemitism within their ranks than upset their liberal base.”
Michelle L. Price, The Associated Press