Mitt Romney, the candidate who doesn't come down on the side of any issue so much as he tries to surround them all, seemed confused this time about what he wants to do with aid to Israel.
When Texas Gov. Rick Perry said at Saturday night's Republican candidates' foreign policy debate in South Carolina that on funding foreign aid "Every country would start at zero," Romney chimed in, "I agree with Governor Perry. Start everything at zero," Politico reported.
There was a collective gasp from Republican Jewish operatives who are planning once again to target Barack Obama as hostile to the Jewish state – a strategy that backfired on them in 2008, especially in Florida.
Both the Perry and Romney campaigns, after some prodding, came out with a typical politician's response: "That may be what I said but that's not what I meant."
Later in the debate, moderator Scott Pelley of CBS read a question from Twitter asking, “Does governor Perry’s foreign aid starts at zero include Israel?”
“Absolutely,” Perry answered.
The Republican Jewish Coalition tweeted Ben Smith at Politico: "hoping @perrytruthteam will brief their man on 10-year Memorandum of Understanding that governs US- #Israel funding levels."
Perry's properly prodded handlers eventually tweeted: "Obviously Israel is a special ally and my bet is we would be funding them at some substantial level. But it makes sense for everyone to come in at zero and make your case."
Delighted Democrats took these answers, especially Romney's because he is the frontrunner while Perry seems to be steadily dropping to the back of the pack, and began firing away.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, grabbed an opportunity to tell Jewish voters, "We're more pro-Israel than the other guys."
“I’m aghast that the leading Republican contenders for President tonight, including Mitt Romney, pledged to zero out the foreign aid budget including the traditional and vital support the U.S. has provided the Jewish state of Israel for its security. I cannot think of a more irresponsible, risky or deplorable position towards our most important friend and ally," she declared.
It was quickly obvious neither GOP hopeful had done his homework and both were just shooting from the lip and pandering to the xenophobia of their conservative audience. The U.S. and Israel have a 10-year agreement to provide Israel with security assistance worth approximately $30 billion, as RJC tried to remind Perry's staff. Perry and Romney suggested they would scrap that in favor of a zero-based foreign aid budget.
A day later Romney attempted a partial retreat when a spokesperson emailed AFP: "Mitt Romney firmly believes that the United States must continue supporting Israel and increase military aid to our strongest friend and ally."
Perry's campaign released a statement describing him as "a friend to Israel" who "understands the challenges faced by the country," which is "a unique and vital political and economic partner for the United States," AFP reported.
But, most revealing, neither candidate pledged to maintain the current level of U.S. aid to Israel under the agreement signed during the Bush Administration and extending beyond the end of the term of the president to be elected next year.
The question of foreign aid is one that needs and deserves serious discussion, not self-aggrandizing political pandering, but don't look for any of that in this or any election year.