Sen. Rand Paul, an outspoken opponent of all foreign aid, is ready to make an exception for Israel.
The freshman Kentucky Republican, who is considering a 2016 presidential run, still says the United States should reduce its spending by cutting foreign assistance to countries such as Egypt and Libya, where U.S. diplomatic missions have been attacked. He also wants to halt aid to Pakistan until it releases from jail a local doctor who helped U.S. forces in the operation that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
But Paul has changed his tune on aid to Israel, which he once said should not be spared from his call for an end to foreign aid.
“What I’ve said is that we can’t continue to spend a trillion dollars we don’t have, so we have to look everywhere for cuts, and foreign aid is one of those areas,” he said Tuesday. “Within foreign aid, I would start with cutting those who don’t appear to be our allies. The one thing you can say about Israel is there doesn’t seem to be any mobs burning our flag there.”
Paul plans to make his first trip to Israel in the spring. He said he would be traveling with a group of evangelical Christian clergymen. Evangelicals, for whom support for Israel is as important as such social issues as opposing abortion, are a key constituency for any GOP presidential hopeful.
“I’ve never been a proponent of saying, ‘Oh, let’s go punish Israel,’” Paul said. “I’ve made general statements about foreign aid that some in the pro-Israel community have misinterpreted to mean that I have some sort of animosity toward Israel. That’s not true.”
In a February 2011 interview with ABC News, Paul said his calls to end aid to Israel were part of his larger push for fiscal restraint.
“I’m not singling out Israel. I support Israel,” he said at the time. “I want to be known as a friend of Israel, but not with money you don’t have. We can’t just borrow from our kids’ future and give it to countries, even if they are our friends.”
He also said in that earlier interview that Israel’s strong economy and relative wealth also made U.S. aid unnecessary. “I think they’re an important ally, but I also think that their per capita income is greater than probably three-fourths of the rest of the world,” Paul said. “Should we be giving free money or welfare to a wealthy nation? I don’t think so.”
Israel, the largest recipient of U.S. aid, has received $3 billion annually in military aid ever since it signed its peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. In recent years, the United States also has spent about $1 billion to help fund several Israeli anti-missile systems, such as Iron Dome.
On Tuesday, Paul said he was visiting Israel to familiarize himself with Middle Eastern affairs. He said he would meet with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“I want to know more about the discussions, the debate, whether or not I could be any part of moving the debate towards peace or some kind of solution,” he said.
But Paul took pains to avoid ruffling any Israeli feathers over its recent decision to build Jewish settlements in a sensitive area east of Jerusalem that would effectively divide the West Bank in half and cut off Jerusalem from the rest of the Palestinian territory.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for the United States to dictate to Israel where their settlements should be,” he said. “Israel’s a sovereign nation. One of the mistakes we make is thinking because we give them money, we can tell them what to do. I think we should respect Israel’s sovereignty to make their own decisions.”