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Rand Paul’s new message on Israel

I was reminded in my Tuesday conversation with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that he is not his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.). On a personal level, he is more self-aware and engaging than is the elder Paul, a wide-eyed libertarian. On a policy basis, Rand Paul is quite clearly trying to expand the Republican Party by reaching out to Hispanics and younger voters. And these days he is carrying a very different message on Israel, a topic on which his father routinely voiced views and voted in ways that were far outside the mainstream of either party.

Rand Paul has received some criticism for his own regarding Israel. This year he hung up a vote in the Senate on Iran sanctions. That, along with his previously emphatic statements against foreign aid, have given the appearance of being anti-Israel. Others, unfairly in our view, attribute his father’s views to him.

I asked him if there is one perception about him that is particularly wrong. Without skipping a beat, he replied, “That I am unfriendly to Israel.” He is going to Israel for the first time. He told me, “We’ll have some meetings with political leaders. I want to hear from all sides.”

“We’ve talked about [such a trip] for a long time,“ he said, explaining that with three children (all boys, ages 13-19) and trips back to Kentucky it has been hard to schedule. He said he is looking forward to taking his family and “seeing our Judeo-Christian roots” He added, “I’ve always been fascinated with the 1st century,” citing reading he has done on the separation of Christianity from Judaism.

“Israel shouldn’t be dictated to by the U.S. They are a sovereign country,” Paul said — whether the issue is the peace process or Gaza. No one should be telling Israel how to respond, he added, “unless you have missiles coming down on your head. They are sovereign.”

Christian Zionists appear willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, for now. One pro-Israel leader says, “The question before me is if he is different than his dad — smarter than his dad —  or just making the right noise.” He adds wryly, “Evangelicals believe in forgiveness.”

I spoke Tuesday night with David Brog, executive director of the country’s largest pro-Zionist group, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which has been outspoken in criticizing Paul’s advocacy for cuts in crucial military aid to Israel. Brog explained CUFI’s past concerns: “Paul has thus far seemed oblivious to the reality that Israel’s military is fighting our battles for us and keeping us from having to send our own soldiers to do the job.” Nevertheless, Brog told me that “we’re certainly encouraged to learn that Senator Paul is traveling to Israel. We know that the facts are on Israel’s side. And we know from long experience that there’s nothing like a visit to Israel to learn facts and change minds. We’ve seen such trips work complete transformations in the past, most notably when Senator Jesse Helms flew to Israel in 1984 as a vocal critic of the Jewish state and returned home to be among Israel’s staunchest supporters.”

Brog makes the case that support for Israel actually meshes with Paul’s desire to conduct foreign policy with limited revenues. By providing military aid to Israel, Brog argued, we enable an ally to fight our common enemies. He said, “I hope Sen. Paul sees that his economic policy and foreign policy and political interests need not conflict with support for Israel. In fact, it will earn him a great following.”

It is widely believed Rand Paul is positioning himself for a presidential run in 2016; he and his advisers have admitted he is interested. It is true that in the GOP, and especially among evangelicals who vote in strong numbers in the primaries, solid support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is as important as hot-button social issues. Figures who are adored by the tea party — a group composed largely of Christian conservatives —  such as  Sarah Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are fervently pro-Israel. But politics is a game of mutual self-interest. As Brog said, “If Senator Paul returns from his visit and demonstrates that he has become a true friend to Israel — in both word and in deed — then Christians United for Israel will be among the first to congratulate him and welcome him ‘home.’”

In another foreign policy area, Paul said his colleagues are “missing the point” on Benghazi by focusing on what U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said on Sunday talk shows in the wake of the U.S. Consulate attack. Instead, he said, Congress should be focusing on “who made the decision to leave our ambassador with no Marines” and to deny military assets when the attack was ongoing. “That person shouldn’t be making decisions about embassy security,” he argued.

Regardless of his motives, Republicans would be foolish to treat Rand Paul as a clone of his father or to reject his admonitions on topics such as immigration. Pro-Israel Americans, meanwhile, could use as many converts as possible, especially given the declining support for Israel among Democrats and a White House that seems to relish, as Paul put it, “dictating to Israel.”

The proof will be in the pudding when it comes to votes and specific policy positions, but why should conservatives dismiss the emergence of a more nuanced Rand Paul? Now is not the time to be choosing presidential candidates (at least for a couple years, right?) or dividing an already shrunken party.

A “big tent” should, it seems, have plenty of room for Rand Paul.