Vivek Ramaswamy’s comments last month suggesting that he’d cut aid to Israel look like a self-exposed wound his rival Nikki Haley continues to hit. But the biotech entrepreneur’s comments — which he’s since qualified — may actually foreshadow where the Republican Party’s younger, America First-types are headed on the question of Israel.
In August, when asked by interviewer Russell Brand whether he would cut aid to Israel, Ramaswamy said, “There’s no North Star commitment to any one country other than the United States of America.” Ramaswamy went on to defend the historic U.S.-Israel partnership, but pledged that “come 2028” — or by the end of his first term — U.S. aid to Israel “won’t be necessary.”
Republicans and Israel
While progressive Democrats are increasingly vocal in calls to condition or reduce aid to Israel, the very idea of any downgrade in ties with Tel Aviv is an anathema for a Republican Party in which Christian Zionists are big players.
It wasn’t always this way. Past Republican presidential candidates Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul called for ending aid to Israel. Their influence lives on in today’s Republican Party dominated not just by the MAGA movement, but also by a libertarianism — often paranoid — that is pushing back against the post-9/11 surveillance state.
Ramaswamy’s politics synthesize these two styles. While the businessman has little to show in terms of past allegiance to the Republican Party, he’s had what can be described as libertarian tendencies since college. He’s also expressed an affinity for Ron Paul. Ramaswamy’s use of the term “neocons” to disparage his Republican opponents is a telling sign of where he stands ideologically.
Yet Ramaswamy, unlike Paul, is keen on gaining the evangelical Christian vote. His comments on Israel, like his praise for India’s Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi, could damage his prospects with evangelical Christian Zionists, who see Israel not just as an ally, but also as the realization of Biblical prophecy.
While Ramaswamy has adopted an ecumenical notion of “faith” in his campaign, there’s really no way he — a practicing Hindu — can embrace a religious justification for U.S. support for Israel.
Instead, Ramaswamy speaks of U.S.-Israel relations in secular terms. His language is positive — he told Brand he thinks “our relationship with Israel has advanced American interests.” But, at the moment, it is the religious narrative that provides the bilateral relationship with a buffer today against the volatility of Israeli politics and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Without the garb of exceptionalism, Israel may have less leeway in Washington. Already, the pro-Israel consensus is fraying.
A Gallup survey conducted earlier this year reveals not just a growing partisan gap on Israel, but also a generational one. Millennials across party lines have greater sympathy for the Palestinians than Israelis compared to older Americans.
In the near term, support for Israel among Republicans is by no means in jeopardy. But beyond this election cycle, two ideas brought to the fore by Ramaswamy — the secularization of U.S. policy toward Israel and the idea that there are limits to which Washington will support it — could shake up the status quo on the bilateral relationship.
Today, nearly half of Republican voters favor an isolationist foreign policy, according to a Morning Consult tracking poll. As the conservative movement evolves, inward-looking millennial and Gen Z Republicans, like progressive Democrats, may question the rationale for providing aid to Israel, a high-income country. (Israel’s gross domestic product per capita is higher than that of France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom.)
From Christian Zionism to National Conservatism
But the rise of Ramaswamy isn’t all bad news for Israel. In fact, he may be simpatico with Israel’s far-right. He’s spoken out against U.S. interference in Israeli politics. In other words, a Ramaswamy presidency wouldn’t force Israel to roll back the controversial so-called “judicial reforms.”
Ramaswamy has also said he admires Israeli border policy and nationalism. Some may find this odd given that as a brown son of Indian Hindu immigrants, he’d be excluded from an American variant of Israeli ultranationalism. But Ramaswamy’s comments are probably a nod to the ideas of far-right Israeli ideologue Yoram Hazony.
Hazony’s “national conservatism” rejects global liberalism (aka “globalism”) and liberal internationalism and argues instead for the defense of sovereign nation-states anchored by religious virtues, social traditionalism, and free enterprise economics.
Somewhat paradoxically, Hazony and Co. have amassed supporters from various nationalist and ultranationalist groups and movements, including CPAC in the U.S. and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary. They convene at the annual National Conservatism Conference (or NatCon) organized by the Edmund Burke Foundation.
Ramaswamy and Hazony are bound by another connection: Peter Thiel.
When Ramaswamy speaks about a pathway toward ending U.S. aid to Israel, it isn’t clear whether it’s the libertarian or the national conservative in him speaking. He, like Thiel, straddles the boundary between libertarianism and national conservatism. One might call him a conservatarian.
Either way, while Ramaswamy’s proposal to phase out U.S. aid to Israel may irk Israel’s establishment supporters, it may actually gain traction with supporters of Tel Aviv’s far-right government.
In July, Jacob Siegel and Liel Leibovitz argued in the right-leaning Tablet for ending U.S. aid to Israel, claiming it “undermine[s] Israel’s domestic defense industry, weaken[s] its economy, and compromise[s] the country’s autonomy.” Some may find their contention laughable, but the point is that such an argument is being made by those adjacent to Israel’s right. Indeed, in practice, aid cuts could actually reduce Washington’s leverage with Tel Aviv and accelerate its far-right turn.
So, regardless of his motives, Ramaswamy may be pushing the U.S.-Israel relationship into unchartered territory.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine. He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.