WASHINGTON – The five candidates at Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate were eager to weigh in on Israel during the first GOP event since the brutal Oct. 7 Hamas attack that incited a war in the region.
NBC Nightly News host Lester Holt asked the presidential hopefuls – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) – how they would handle the ongoing crisis if they were in the Oval Office now.
While the responses were largely supportive of Israel, several candidates stood out for their global security expertise. For others – such as Ramaswamy – the question highlighted the gaping holes in their foreign policy resumes.
Former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley came out swinging when Holt asked what she “would be urging [Israeli] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do – would you [have him] consider a humanitarian pause, for example?”
“The first thing I said to him when it happened was, ‘finish them,’” Haley said. “They have to one, eliminate Hamas, two support Israel with whatever they need, whenever they need it; and three, make sure we bring our hostages home.”
The fiery response came in contrast to President Biden’s recent actions pushing Israel to conduct “humanitarian pauses” in Gaza to allow for hostage recovery and shipping in humanitarian aid. So far, Netanyahu has refused to halt the conflict without substantive agreements with Hamas for the release of hostages.
“The last thing we need to do is to tell Israel what to do. The only thing we should be doing is supporting them and eliminating Hamas,” she said. “It is not that Israel needs America – America needs Israel. They are the tip of the spear when it comes to this Islamic terrorism and we need to make sure that we have their backs in that process.”
Haley also highlighted the need to hold Iran accountable for sponsoring Hamas and other terror organizations in the Middle East who have been behind not only the attacks in Israel but also more than 40 attacks on US service members in the region since Oct. 17
“We need to be very clear-eyed to know there would be no Hamas without Iran,” she said. “There would be no Hezbollah without Iran; there would not be the Houthi without Iran; and there wouldn’t be the Iranian militias in Syria and Iraq that are trying to hit our military men and women if it hadn’t been for Iran and who was funding Iran right now.”
DeSantis, meanwhile, would also encourage Netanyahu to destroy Hamas, noting that he is “sick of hearing other people blame Israel just for defending itself.”
“I would be telling Bibi to finish the job once and for all with these butchers, Hamas,” he said. “They’re terrorists, they’re massacring innocent people. They would fight every Jew off the globe if they could.”
“[Netanyahu] cannot live with that threat right by his country. Hamas should release every hostage and they should unconditionally surrender,” he added.
He also took the opportunity to highlight his work to evacuate more than 700 Americans from Israel on recent flights to Florida who had been stuck in the country without flights home.
“Biden’s neglect has been atrocious. We had Floridians that were over there after the attack. He left them stranded they couldn’t get flights out. So I scrambled resources in Florida, I sent planes over to Israel,” he said. “As governor, I actually did something about it.”
Christie spoke of his concerns that Israeli intelligence officials missed the Hamas attack, failing to detect Hamas’ plans until it was too late, while Scott pledged that he would tell Netanyahu that Israel has his full support.
“I would tell Prime Minister Netanyahu, ‘You have the responsibility and the right to wipe Hamas off of the map,” Scott said. “We will support you, we will be there with you, we’ll stand shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Further, Scott chided Biden and former President Barack Obama for relying too much on diplomacy when it comes to international conflicts. Specifically, he called for the US to strike Iran, which heavily backs Hamas.
“I would tell President Biden with great clarity: if you want to stop the 40-plus attacks on military personnel in the Middle East, you have to strike in Iran,” Scott said.
Far less experienced than his competitors, Ramaswamy’s lack of a grasp on foreign policy was on full display when it came to Israel.
While the entrepreneur spoke sentiments of support for Israel, he did not offer any clear path to the guidance he would offer Israel. Rather, he reverted to his “America First” ideas.
“The founding vision of Israel was based on the idea that they don’t want to depend on anybody else’s sympathy or direction in defending themselves, so what I will tell Bibi is that Israel has the right and the responsibility to defend itself,” he said. “I will tell them to smoke those terrorists on his southern border. And I’ll tell him as president of the United States, I’ll be smoking the terrorists on our southern border.”
While Ramaswamy did not definitively state that he would support sending Israel military aid or other funding to carry out its war on Hamas, he made clear that he felt that fighting Hamas was Netanyahu’s job – not America’s.
“That’s his responsibility, that’s how we move forward,” he said.