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RJC chair Norm Coleman previews annual summit, featuring all GOP presidential contenders

RJC chair on Biden’s Israel record: ‘I have criticized his policies, but this has been a shining moment for him in terms of support for Israel and the actions that he's taken to reflect that support’

Adam Bettcher/Getty Images for Starkey Hearing Foundation

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) introduces Tony Blair at the 2016 Starkey Hearing Foundation "So the World May Hear" awards gala at the St Paul RiverCentre on July 17, 2016 in St Paul, Minnesota.

LAS VEGAS — As Israel’s war with Hamas continues to escalate, the Republican Jewish Coalition is hosting its high-profile annual donor summit —  where eight GOP presidential candidates are expected to address the conflict at the Venetian Resort on Saturday — during a time of unique urgency for American Jews.

“There’s a heaviness that hangs over this event,” former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN), the RJC’s national chairman, said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Friday afternoon, noting that he could not recall a summit that held equal significance. “This moment is as profound and emotionally moving as we’ve ever had — for the Jewish people and the RJC.”

Ahead of the speeches, Coleman discussed the stakes of the event and weighed in on President Joe Biden’s approach to the war in Gaza, among other issues.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jewish Insider: Can you recall an RJC summit as significant as the one happening this weekend?

Norm Coleman: No. I’ll give a long answer to a short question. In the board meeting that we had today — one, by the way, in which Sen. [Lindsey] Graham and Sens. [Steve] Daines and [John] Thune spoke with us — at the end of one of the sessions, George Klein, who’s one of the founders of the RJC, said that we’re broken now. Either we have friends, relatives or simply the fact that we’re Jews, the Jewish homeland has suffered an incredible devastation, brutality that one could hardly comprehend. Lindsey Graham said this is beyond ISIS. 

So we’re convening a setting of Jews who are focused on Israel, who are focused on what’s the right path forward for America. Just as we’re speaking, as the talk about what’s happening now in Gaza is moving to another level, this moment is as profound and emotionally moving as we’ve ever had — for the Jewish people and the RJC. It even goes beyond the 1973 War, when Israel’s survival was at stake. 

We’re in a unique place at this time, and I think the [Republican National Committee’s] decision to have the RJC as a co-host of the next debate is probably a reflection of that — of understanding that this issue is certainly on the mind of not just Jews but all Americans, and in part because what happened in Israel, from Hamas, if America was as close as Israel is it would have happened in America. These folks want to kill Jews, so America is also the enemy. It’s a really unique time to have this event under these circumstances. 

JI: Broadly speaking, what do you think attendees will expect to see from the presidential candidates who are speaking at the summit, now that we’ve entered a new moment with regard to Israel?

Coleman: The good news is that, by and large, Republicans — the Republican candidates, the base — have all been incredibly supportive of Israel. I’ve often said, if you’re at a Republican gathering and you say, ‘I stand with Israel,’ that’s an applause line. The challenge for my friends across the aisle is that for the Democratic base, that’s not necessarily the same anymore. So I don’t expect people to come up with a newfound championing of Israel. I think it’s wholehearted and long-standing. But clearly, folks will expect to hear from those who come before us their commitment to supporting Israel and what Israel has to do to destroy Hamas.

JI: While acknowledging that there is relative unanimity on Israel across the Republican party, there have been some notable outliers in recent weeks. We saw former President Donald Trump, for instance, draw widespread backlash after he criticized Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and called Hezbollah ‘very smart’ in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. 

Coleman: But he came right back with a statement, ‘I stand with Bibi’ and ‘I support Israel,’ so he quickly erased questions about where he stood. Vivek [Ramaswamy] has made some comments that the RJC has urged him to rethink. He has not articulated the kind of support for Israel that we expect.

JI: How do you think Ramaswamy will be received at the summit, where he’ll be appearing for the first time, especially after some recent statements in which he’s rejected sending additional military aid to Israel and cast doubt on Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza. 

Coleman: I would anticipate that he’s not going to be as well received as just about every other candidate and speaker who comes before us. As I mentioned, Daines spoke to us last night, Thune spoke to us last night, Lindsey spoke to us last night. One of the things that George Klein said is, when they spoke about their support for Israel, you could tell it was us from their soul. And for so many of the folks who come before us, you can tell by the way they express their support for Israel – the way they express their clear understanding that Hamas has to be eliminated, that Israel can’t allow to happen what happened before — that their articulation of support for Israel was not just words. You could tell it was in their soul. I think Vivek is going to have a challenge, and I don’t know what he’s going to say.

JI: Even among some RJC members I’ve spoken to who are tired of Trump and hope he won’t win the nomination, there still remains a significant level of appreciation for his administration’s record on Israel. How do you think RJC members have been balancing that appreciation alongside their reservations with Trump, particularly as he continues to dominate the primary? 

Coleman: It’s fair to say that he was the best friend that Israel had in the White House. People appreciate that and respect that. How that impacts what choices they make as they move on, I can’t say. We have a lot of friends: Mike Pence, Nikki Haley — if I say someone, I’ll leave someone else out. But I think Trump will receive recognition for his record. I think people respect that. At the same time, there are folks who support other candidates in terms of looking forward. They’ll have a chance to make their pitch, and we’ll see where it goes.

JI: Have you found Trump’s efforts to walk back his initial comments on the Hamas attacks sincere? 

Coleman: Yeah. I keep going back to the record, to what he did as president, and if you recall, when I introduced him at a previous RJC event, I used dayenu: ‘It would have been enough if he recognized sovereignty over the Golan.’ ‘It would have been enough if he appointed Nikki Haley to be ambassador to the U.N. to fight the blatant antisemitism which has been endemic at the U.N.’ ‘It would have been enough if he moved the embassy to Jerusalem.’ Dayenu, dayenu, dayenu. So I think he gets recognition for that.

JI: What do you make of President Biden’s messaging on Israel in the wake of the attacks?

Coleman: I think he’s been superb. I give him great credit for the strong stance that he’s taken in support of Israel. I give him credit for moving two carrier fleets into the region, hopefully sending a message to Iran — who, by the way, clearly is at the center of all this — that if another front opens they will pay a price. If Americans are attacked in places like Syria and Iraq, Iran should pay a price. They should pay a big price. I give him great credit for that. That doesn’t negate the criticism I had for his policies with Obama, of supporting the JCPOA, his lessening of the sanctions. I think, in many cases, our enemies perceived us as weak. I have criticized his policies, but this has been a shining moment for him in terms of support for Israel and the actions that he’s taken to reflect that support — and I give him credit for that.

JI: The RJC put out a statement in May urging congressional lawmakers, particularly in the House, to support the continuation of U.S. aid to Ukraine in its war against Russia. With that in mind, I’m wondering how you’re now looking at Mike Johnson — the newly elected House speaker and a last-minute addition to the RJC summit this weekend — who has refused to support an aid package that would combine funding to both Ukraine and Israel.

Coleman: First, let me just say we’re thrilled he’s coming. I mean, he literally just got elected speaker a couple of hours ago, and even as he has a thousand things to pull together, one of the things that rises to his priority list is to come in for the RJC. We have no doubt, no doubt, of his deep commitment to the Jewish state, understanding that it’s in America’s interest to support Israel. So we just really appreciate the message that he’s making by coming. 

There is within the House, particularly in the House, disagreement on Ukraine. The RJC firmly believes that if Putin is allowed to do what he wants to do in Ukraine, that sends a signal to the Chinese that, you know, ‘why don’t you go into Taiwan,’ and perhaps even sends a signal to Hamas that, you know, ‘let’s attack Israel now.’ That’s our strong position, and hopefully we’ll be able to express that and discuss that with him. We look forward to an ongoing relationship, an ongoing conversation about the things that we think are in America’s interests and also in Israel’s interests. And he’s obviously, just by coming, going to be open to those kinds of conversations.

JI: I have one final question, about the potential normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel that had been in the works before the attacks and now appears to be in jeopardy. You were in Saudi Arabia last week when a bipartisan Senate delegation led by Lindsey Graham and Ben Cardin visited Riyadh to meet with top Saudi officials. Are you optimistic that the deal can ultimately be salvaged?

Coleman: Full disclosure: I represent the Saudi Embassy in D.C. But from my perspective — this is just me — Iran understood that the prospect of Saudi normalization, integration with Israel, would be a game changer in the region that would have impacted a range of other Arab countries and their relations with Israel — and the Iranians were determined to stop it. I honestly think this attack was part of that. 

I’m hopeful that whenever Israel does what it has to do to wipe out Hamas in Gaza that there would then be conversations about, how do you have peace in the region? How do you have greater integration of Israel with its Gulf neighbors? How do we foster a vision of working together? And by the way, one that benefits Palestinians, that provides economic hope and opportunity and a new future not controlled by the terrorists and monsters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and others who support terrorism. 

I’m an optimist, and I’m hopeful that day will someday soon come. Iran has certainly done what they could to forestall that. But in the end, again, there needs to be a path to peace and a brighter future for all in the region, including Palestinians. And certainly, an integration with these major powers in the region, Israel and Saudi — Saudi being a major force in the region, home of the two holy mosques — would be a brighter day for all. 

JI: Maybe that’s a good note to end on.

Coleman: I like that. End on a positive note, at a time that, as I said, that we’re broken. We’re broken by the pain, by the enormity of the depravity. It’s beyond comprehension, the killing of babies and young kids in front of their parents, the rape and the mutilation. It’s just beyond comprehension. There’s a heaviness that hangs over this event, and the fact that folks survived the Holocaust, who survived the Nazis, would find themselves being killed in their own bed by Hamas simply for being a Jew, in 2023, is really hard to comprehend. And we have to make sure it never ever, ever happens again.

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