Prospective Republican candidates woo Jews; Israel in Gov. Chris Christie's remarks results in imbroglio

Sheldon Adelson at RJC Spring (Ethan Miller Times of Israel)
Jewish Republicans gathered to meet and evaluate potential candidates at the Republican Jewish Coalition's Spring Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas during the last weekend in March. 

This DemoCast-exclusive video features Ohio Gov. John Kasich addressing the gathering, as did Gov. Scott Walker, Amb. John Bolton, and Gov. Chris Christie. We filmed reactions to the gathering from R.J.C. Executive Director Matthew Brooks, Commentary Magazine Editor John Podhoretz, and Morton Klein, Exec. Dir. of the Zionist Organization of America.

In this DemoCast-exclusive, video interview, Zionist Organization of America's Executive Director, Morton Klein recounts his reaction to (and subsequent follow-up with) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's remarks that Judea and Samaria are "occupied (by Israel) territories."

Richard Miniter writes in Forbes Magazine, "Did Chris Christie "bully" Sheldon Adelson's friend?"

The more the donors learn about Gov. Christie—the more they are questioning his fitness for higher office.

“He hurt himself with that group. No doubt about it,” said Morton Klein, president of Zionist Organization of America. He was in the front row for Christie’s talk on Saturday and spoke to me on Tuesday morning. Klein is hugely influential in  pro-Israel circles and phones his longtime friend, Sheldon Adelson, every week or so to talk about Israel and American politics. Klein described his private encounter with Christie (described below) as “really unpleasant, condescending, rude, dismissive. [Christie] was bullying me. I’ve never had a politician speak to me that way.”

Klein talked to many of the major donors in the room and, he said, nearly every one had the same reaction. “They said ‘I never realized that Christie wasn’t a friend on Israel,’ it was a shock, a surprise.”

The media missed important aspects of the story—the very elements that are absorbing the attention of many Republican donors. While they were leaning toward Gov. Christie before his Saturday speech, now they are questioning his grasp of key issues, his stands and, most tellingly, his temperament and his character.

Christie’s Prepared Remarks Didn’t Mention Israel. Gov. Christie’s prepared remarks to a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting didn’t include any significant mention of Israel. Imagine a politician speaking to an African-American audience and not planning to mention civil rights or a chamber of commerce and not writing in a few lines about the economy.

Still, the speech has a hit and should have positioned the tough-talking former prosecutor for a presidential run in 2016. His speech even had a pitch-perfect sound bite: “We cannot have a world where our friends are unsure of whether we’ll be with them, and our enemies are unsure of whether we’ll be against them.”

The crowd thundered its approval. But that’s not the line that any one will remember.

Since the prepared speech was silent on Israel, it was the natural topic of questions from the audience. And that’s when Gov. Christie said the words that got him in trouble: “I took a helicopter ride from the occupied territories across and just felt personally how extraordinary that was to understand, the military risk that Israel faces every day.”

That phrase—“occupied territories”—set off murmurs in the crowd. “There was a buzz throughout the room,” Klein said.

“Most of the several hundred people in attendance noticeably gasped when Gov. Christie used the language of Israel’s enemies,” Klein told me. “Saying that territory captured in a defensive war [in 1967] in which its enemies sought its extinction is ‘occupied’ is designed solely to delegitimize the Jewish state’s claims to that land.”

The crowd’s reaction was predictable. “Occupied Territories” is not a neutral term for the land West of Jordan River, but a phrase used by radical Palestinian activists and others opposed to Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. The term doesn’t come from international law, but from partisan screeds. It is phrase that takes a side, not one that describes a place.  That’s why American diplomats, leaders and journalists generally avoid it. Instead they say “West Bank” or “Judea and Samaria” or similarly neutral formulations.

By using it, Klein said, Christie was signaling that he either was opposed to Israel or didn’t care enough to avoid the coded language of the anti-Israel crowd.

There is a third possibility that Klein didn’t consider. Like most state-wide office seekers, Christie has actively campaigned for votes among the growing Arab population of Passaic County, New Jersey (one of the largest in the country) and appointed prominent Muslim jurists to state government posts there. Among circles of Arab attorneys, the term “occupied territories” is widely used. Christie may have unconsciously picked it up among his supporters in Paterson, New Jersey.
Christie was a rude, dismissive bully when the error was first pointed out.

Moments after Gov. Christie stepped down from the dais, Klein followed him out a side entrance and into a narrow service corridor. Klein pointed out that Jordan had occupied the territory from Israel’s modern birth in 1948 to 1967, when Israel simultaneously defeated three converging Arab armies who publicly announced that their war aim was wipe Israel off the map. Klein asked Christie if he would avoid using the loaded term “occupied territories” in the future.

The governor didn’t answer directly, Klein said, only saying “Oh, I saw you in the front row, shaking your head when I said that.”

His tone radiated anger and impatience, Klein said.

Christie “didn’t want to listen,” Klein said. “He was really unpleasant, condescending, rude, dismissive. He was bullying me. I’ve never had a politician speak to me that way.”

“Bullying” is precisely the way that New Jersey Democrats describe the governor in their personal dealings with him. Treating political allies in that same manner will reinforce a narrative that will make it harder for Christie to win national office.

The apology that wasn’t. 

Politico, the Forward  and other outlets referred to Christie’s private meeting with Adelson, a few hours after the remarks, and called the governor’s private remarks an “apology.”

To Klein and other Republican donors that I spoke to, calling Christie’s temporizing (“I misspoke”) an apology is overly generous.

Christie didn’t make any public statement disavowing his remarks to the Republican Jewish Coalition. And didn’t say that he was “sorry” or say that he would use words more carefully in the future. Instead, he made a private remark to Adelson, which Adelson’s spokesman was allowed to transmit to the press.

To Klein and others, saying “I misspoke” doesn’t amount to an apology at all and doesn’t alter the negative impression that Christie created.

Indeed, Klein thinks that Christie’s grudging “I misspoke” phrase was driven by political self-interest (he is seeking financial support from Adelson) rather than sincere belief. “When he was speaking to me, I think he was speaking exactly as he believes. When he was talking to Sheldon [Adelson], he was trying to appease a potential donor.”

And Christie’s retreat came too late to be sincere, Klein said. “Only after his comments became the buzz of the conference and it went viral in the media did Gov. Christie change course and claim to have misspoken.”

Mr. Miniter continues on Forbes.com 

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