Nikki Haley swipes at Trump as GOP candidates tout staunch support for Israel

LAS VEGAS — Republican presidential candidates delivered speeches touting their staunch support for Israel at the annual Republican Jewish Coalition’s summit Saturday — and sought to peel support away from former President Donald Trump, the front-runner, who recently faced backlash for criticizing Israeli Prime Minister and calling Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, “very smart.”

“America needs a captain who will steady the ship, not capsize it, and Republicans need a candidate who can actually win,” former U.N. Ambassador said in her remarks, pointedly criticizing Trump, who has drawn strong support from Orthodox Jews, according to a poll this year by the Jewish Electoral Institute.

“I will not criticize Israel’s prime minister in the middle of a tragedy and war,” Haley added as Israel expanded its ground offensive in Gaza, with Netanyahu warning of a long and difficult war after Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7. More than 7,000 people, including women and children, have died in Gaza, according to Palestinian health officials. In Israel, about 1,400 people have died.

At the gathering of Jewish conservatives in Las Vegas, expressed support for Israel’s right to dismiss the “myth” of a two-state solution, Florida Gov. referred to the West Bank as “the most ancient Jewish land going back to biblical times,” and Sen. Tim Scott of Florida reiterated his calls to deport foreign students participating in “antisemitic” protests on college campuses.

The efforts by Haley and her fellow 2024 contenders were overshadowed in the room by former Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s former running mate, who unexpectedly announced that he is suspending his campaign.

“The Bible tells us that there’s a time for every purpose under heaven. Traveling across the country over the past six months, I came here to say it’s become clear to me: This is not my time,” Pence said. “So after much prayer and deliberation, I have decided to suspend my campaign for president effective today.”

Matt Brooks, the CEO of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told reporters Pence didn’t provide any notice that he was planning to suspend his campaign at the summit.

“I had spent about 10 or 15 minutes with him in the green room beforehand, and it was never mentioned,” Brooks said. “He picked an incredibly appropriate audience to do this.”

Pence’s unexpected announcement got mixed reviews from attendees of the summit. Despite his longshot odds of reaching the White House, some of Pence’s core supporters were disheartened by the news.

“I’m depressed,” said Harry DeMell, of New York. “He’s the person with the most integrity. When the gun was to his head, quite literally, Mike Pence did the right thing for the Constitution, for America.”

Other attendees weren’t as sentimental.

“I think it’s a good thing,” Las Vegas resident Yhali Lipp said. “He wasn’t going to win anyway, and I feel like he should put his energy toward helping Trump.”

Trump didn’t refer to Pence’s dropping out in his remarks. But his speech, the longest of all the candidates, did showcase the strength of his support in the room, which was on full display even before he hit the stage.

When former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a regular critic of the former president, began speaking, several people booed, and even more left the room.

“I don’t want to hear him speak,” said Rhona Levine, of Boca Raton, Florida. “I didn’t come to hear Chris Christie.”

Scott’s speech earned him rave reviews and three standing ovations from attendees who described his remarks as “fiery,” particularly as he was touting his proposal to revoke the visas of any foreign national attending protests deemed anti-Israel at colleges and universities.

“A visa so foreign students can study here is not a right; it’s a privilege. Do you want to know what a right is? The right of Jewish Americans to walk down the street in safety,” Scott said to rapturous applause.

But it’s unclear whether Scott’s positive reception will translate into electoral support.

“His energy was just incredible. I was not expecting it, because I didn’t know much of him prior,” said Sam Mirejovsky, a resident of Las Vegas. Despite the praise, Mirejovsky still called Trump his “top contender.”

Haley, Ramaswamy and DeSantis also had some supporters in the room, but one attendee characterized their White House bids as nonviable.

“I think that we need to all be realistic here. And it’s clear that the nominee is going to be Trump,” said Milton Zerman, of Berkeley, California. “I think that having a conversation about, you know, Pence versus Haley versus [North Dakota Gov. Doug] Burgum — there’s no point, because Trump’s going to be the nominee. The polls are clear.”

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