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Republicans look to score political points as Democrats debate shifting left on Israel

A Trump aide told CNN that the party might be due for reassessing its positions on Israel

Washington CNN  — 

Donald Trump is increasingly staking out hawkish positions on Israel – and that has some conservative activists thinking they have an opening to pull the GOP platform further to the right on the issue.

Within 24 hours last week, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee took the uncharacteristic, if politically conventional, steps of expressing condolences in a Facebook post at the killing of an Israeli teenager in the West Bank and rebuking an audience member’s criticism of Israel. He told the man, who objected to U.S. military assistance to “Zionist Israel,” that “Israel is a very, very important ally of the United States and we are going to protect them 100%.”

Days before that, one of his advisers told the Israeli press the candidate was open to embracing an Israeli position on settlements long rejected by the U.S. if Israel deemed it the right decision.

But he also tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton that featured a six-pointed star accusing her of corruption overlaid on images of cash – a graphic that originated on anti-Semitic message boards and drew criticism to Trump.

Those moves come after years of growing rifts between the Democratic U.S. administration and right-wing Israeli government – and the breakdown of the efforts at a peace deal creating a Palestinian state undertaken by the last Republican White House.

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Taken together, the activists – championed by the new group the Iron Dome Alliance – see an opportunity to stake out an official GOP position further to the right as the platform is hammered out at the national convention in Cleveland later this month.

They also think there is an opportunity to score political points as Democrats debate shifting left on Israel. Progressives prompted a platform fight on Israel that resulted in language that is slightly more sympathetic to the Palestinians – and could fight for further concessions all the way to the convention.

Now a group of Republicans is looking to do something similar in the other direction: to remove support for a Palestinian state or any other specific prescription for resolving the decades-long conflict from the GOP platform, despite the fact that a two-state solution has long being a pillar of U.S. policy under both previous Democratic and GOP administrations.

One of Trump’s advisers on Israel, lawyer David Friedman, told CNN that the party might be due for reassessing its positions.

Looking beyond a two-state solution

“It ought to be time to at least take a fresh look at this,” Friedman said, adding that he believes even many Arabs in the West Bank may prefer Israeli rule to a Palestinian state. “The two-state solution might be one answer, but I don’t think it’s the only answer anymore.”

Friedman was the Trump adviser who told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz two weeks ago that Trump may be open to Israel annexing part of the West Bank, which is counter to stated U.S. policy.

Friedman told CNN this week that he was responding to a hypothetical situation and saying there may be circumstances where that is true, rather than putting it forward as a policy position.

But he also indicated to CNN that Trump could be amenable to the changes the Iron Dome Alliance is seeking, though he didn’t comment on specific language.

He said the mogul would support a policy of not “imposing” U.S. will on Israel. Other policy positions would include an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, regional military and technological superiority for the nation and showing “no daylight” between the U.S. and Israel in public.

The Iron Dome Alliance – a reference to the Israeli missile-defense system built with U.S. assistance – is headed by Jewish Republican strategist Jeff Ballabon. He said his group is advocating for removing any prescribed solution to the conflict in favor of stating that U.S. politicians will not support any legislation or policy position that “would coerce or pressure Israel to give up any territory, or create a divided state.”

“The way you back Israel’s policies is to say, ‘We back Israel’s policies,’ and not put your thumb on the scale,” Ballabon said.

The platform writing process and the Iron Dome Alliance’s efforts are still in the preliminary stages. Committee members have only recently been introduced and subcommittee membership is still being finalized.

But despite support for a two-state solution in the past several iterations of the GOP platform, a fresh batch of convention delegates means there could be a new dynamic afoot that allows for change, according to platform committee member and Idaho GOP Chairman Stephen Yates.

“I can say that there is a very broad base and strong support for Israel generally,” Yates told CNN. “We’ve just begun those conversations now – there’s just no way to read where any of this would go.”

Some Republicans oppose effort

To be sure, the effort will face opposition. One longtime foreign policy adviser in Republican administrations, who requested anonymity to speak freely, did not mince words in declaring the push to change the language as a fringe effort that contradicts what even Israel wants.

“The Republican policy platform is never a vehicle for innovative policy making, and the idea that we are going to use the platform to get to the right of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ludicrous,” the adviser said.

Though Netanyahu said during his last election campaign that a Palestinian state wouldn’t be created on his watch, he later walked back his comment and reiterated support for a two-state solution.

“A two-state solution is at the heart of American foreign policy across administrations and this will not be unraveled in Cleveland,” the Republican adviser said.

Ultimately, where the Trump campaign falls on the question will likely be a deciding factor in the platform language adopted.

Long-time platform delegate Jim Bopp of Indiana said the influence of past candidates has governed the platform, with Mitt Romney in 2012 and Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008 strongly supporting two-state solution language and playing a significant role in the drafting process.

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But this year’s nominee could have a different perspective.

“I don’t see that we will have that sort of pressure from the Trump people” to back a two-state solution, Bopp assessed. “So my prediction is that that the platform would tilt more toward a pro-Israel and skeptical of a two-state solution kind of approach than we have in the past.”

The discussion may also reflect a shift among the GOP base that contradicts the thinking of party elites, said Jeff Berkowitz, a veteran of the Republican National Committee and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign.

The “appetite” exists for change, he said, and the discussion in Cleveland will be a test of who “controls the writing of the platform.”

“The proposed language changes are certainly more in line with where the Republican Party base is, which is not pre-determining for Israel what the final status ought to look like,” Berkowitz said. “Is it going to be Mr. Trump and his campaign laying out their vision (in the platform) or is the sort of Beltway conventional wisdom consensus on foreign policy going to overcome their efforts to take a new look at aspects of how U.S. relations with other countries are conducted?”

Trump shifts on Israel

But Trump’s own position on Israel hasn’t been entirely clear.

Last winter, he drew boos at a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting when he declined to promise to keep Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. He also said peace would depend on whether Israel is willing to make sacrifices. He also then said he would remain “neutral” in the negotiations and dodged a question on how he would refer to the West Bank.

After coming under criticism for those comments from many in the Republican Party, Trump has shifted gears.

In a March appearance before the large pro-Israel lobby the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Trump delivered a pre-written speech designed to show himself as a strong supporter of Israel – deviating his typical freewheeling, off-the-cuff style.

Just last week, Trump undertook multiple efforts to show his strong alliance with Israel, including shutting down a questioner at a New Hampshire town hall that criticized Zionism to affirm his support of Israel and putting out a strong statement calling on Palestinian leaders to condemn the murder of an Israeli girl.

His advisers also defended his tweet that was criticized as appearing anti-Semitic, saying the six-pointed star doesn’t always symbolize a Star of David.

Republicans think they have a political opportunity. They are eager to point to the other side of the aisle, saying Democrats’ rift over whether to express more sympathy for the Palestinians shows the party is moving away from Israel.

The Republican Jewish Coalition wouldn’t comment on whether it prefers prefer specific language in the GOP platform but did say something strongly supportive of Israel is expected.

“We are confident that in stark contrast to the Democrats, after unprecedented strain on the Israel-U.S. relationship for eight years, the Republican platform will reaffirm the GOP as the party for pro-Israel voters just as in years past,” spokesman Mark McNulty said in a statement, particularly stressing efforts to combat the campaign to boycott, divest and sanction Israel. “With strong proposals about protecting and reaffirming Israel’s borders, combatting BDS and providing for the mutual defense of our interests, we look forward to the process in Cleveland.”

Whatever language is adopted in Ohio, former George W. Bush Middle East policy aide Elliott Abrams cautioned that it could have consequences beyond American borders.

Leaders in the Middle East will be paying attention to the party platform, even though it’s only a statement of GOP positions rather than U.S. policy, according to Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“I think it would be a great mistake for anything in the Republican platform to attack or criticize the two-state solution in any way. But I think it’s reasonable to say the real goal is a comprehensive and lasting peace, and there may be several ways to get there,” Abrams said.

“Yes, it’s going to raise a million questions in the Middle East,” he continued, though he argued that “there are answers to those questions” raised by any such platform change.

“But the Platform Committee and the candidate have got to be ready with answers,” he said.