During the CBS/National Journal GOP presidential foreign policy debate on Saturday night, Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) said that if he were president, “every country is going to start at zero dollars” in American foreign aid. “We need a president of the United States working with a Congress that sends a clear message to every country. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s Pakistan, Afghanistan or whether it’s India,” he said.
Later in the debate, debate co-moderator Scott Pelley read a question from Twitter that asked, “Does governor Perry’s foreign aid starts at zero include Israel?” “Absolutely,” Perry said:
PELLEY: Does governor Perry’s foreign aid starts at zero include Israel?
PERRY: Well @GovernorPerry would tweet back at her that absolutely, every country would start at zero. 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.
The U.S. has committed to a 10-year agreement to provide Israel with security assistance with approximately $30 billion in aid. President Obama has upheld this agreement, but Perry’s stance would cancel that U.S. commitment.
The Republican Jewish Council tweeted that it hopes Perry gets briefed “on 10-year Memorandum of Understanding that governs US- Israel funding levels.”
By the end of the debate, the Perry campaign had issued a statement clarifying that he's "a friend to Israel and understands the challenges faced by the country," according to Talking Points Memo.
"We must not let any daylight show between our two nations," the statement says, adding that Perry "does not believe weakening Israel is the road to peace. A strong Israel is in the best interests of the United States and the region."
Former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block, a Democrat, emailed Ben Smith:
"When Rick Perry speaks all I can think is oops, and even appearing to question our commitment to Israel certainly falls in that category. Foreign aid is one of the best investments we can make, and it represents one percent of our budget. Israel is special, and our aid to them is a direct investment in our own economy, since it is all security aid and is spent right here at home. If Rick Perry cares about American jobs and America's national security interests he won't equivocate about our commitment to Israel on aid or any other subject."
Bruce Riedel, a former longtime CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, commented on this fiasco in a post on the Daily Beast:
"Gov. Rick Perry's proposal to start each year with zero dollars in foreign aid allocated for Israel and all other countries would have a very disruptive impact on Israeli military planning and Israeli security. Perry's idea is bad news for Israel and shows how little he understands its needs.
The zero-aid idea could also send the wrong message to Israel's foes. Under the U.N. sanctions approved last year, all military aid to Iran has been halted—a total arms cutoff. That is a certainty Iran's military has to plan on. Today they also have to plan on their enemy getting billions for years to come from America. Perry would send a different signal.
A prominent Israel hawk in Rick Perry's camp, Jeff Ballabon, made the case for his Boss, in an email to Ben Smith, and in an exchange with me on Twitter:
"Perry believes Israel's an extraordinary friend and our greatest ally. "Start at Zero" is obviously right for America and anyone wanting to exclude Israel from "Start at Zero" must not believe in Israel's value as our ally. Block's reaction reveals the way Democrats see Israel - as a charity case or a narrow constituency's political football - but US aid to Israel isn't based on a domestic lobby, nor is it special treatment or an entitlement. Under Rick Perry, Israel will set the bar for judging foreign aid to any country. Perry's Start at Zero is exactly the right policy - no country stands to benefit more than Israel from merit-based foreign aid."
In contrary, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's campaign said on Sunday that he wants to boost military help to Israel.
"Mitt Romney firmly believes that the United States must continue supporting Israel and increase military aid to our strongest friend and ally," spokeswoman Andrea Saul told AFP by email.
DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz sharply challenged the Republican field this evening, including Mitt Romney (although it was only Rick Perry that included Israel in his proposal), for pledging to zero out the foreign aid budget, including resources the U.S. provides to Israel to aid in its security.
“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..."
“It is a moral and security imperative for the U.S. to aid in the security of the state of Israel and to defend it from those who would do it harm. Barack Obama understands that and has made Israel's security a priority; proposing and securing $3 billion in foreign aid to Israel; proposing and securing $205 million in funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system for Israel and authorizing the sale of bunker buster bombs previously..."