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Marco Rubio: Democrats skipping Netanyahu’s speech are hurting Israel

Sen. Marco Rubio.
Sen. Marco Rubio.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Republican Senator Marco Rubio is not happy with Democrats who are planning to skip Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's March 3 speech to Congress. In a furious floor speech on Thursday, Rubio accused these Democrats of endangering Israel simply by missing the speech, to the extent that not attending could risk whether or not "people in that nation will survive in 20 years or 15 years."

"What do you think the headlines will be read as in Iran, by the terrorists in Gaza, by the terrorists in Judea and Samaria, by the terrorists in all parts of the world, such as in Lebanon, who want to destroy Israel?" Rubio asked, using the term Judea and Samaria for the West Bank. "What they are going to read into it, unfortunately, is that somehow Congress's commitment to the future security of Israel is not as strong as it once was. And I fear what the implications of that will be."

Analytically speaking, Rubio's case is a stretch. And it ignores that Netanyahu has in many ways forced Democrats into this position with his trip, engineered with Republicans to undermine Obama's Iran talks, thus making Democrats choose between their president and a foreign head of state.

The comments, first flagged by ThinkProgress's Igor Volsky, aren't really out of character for Rubio, a pretty outspoken Israel hawk. But they do show Rubio is using the speech controversy to position himself as a leading foreign policy hawk in advance of the 2016 election.

Netanyahu's speech is designed to whip up Congressional support for new sanctions on Iran. Democrats see this is a slap in the face to President Obama, who opposes new sanctions, and so at least 15 Democratic members of congress are planning to skip it. Vice President Joe Biden, who would normally preside over a joint session of Congress, also won't attend.

Rubio sees things differently. He thinks Democrats need to hear out Netanyahu. His case is not just that showing any hesitation in support Israel is bad, but also that Rubio believes Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may want to nuke Israel in order to bring about the apocalypse.

"When someone wants to trigger an apocalyptic showdown between the Muslim and non-Muslim world, when someone says they want to destroy the State of Israel, wipe it off the face of the Earth, and that person is trying to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities, we had better be very concerned," Rubio said, "and we had better conclude that is an unacceptable risk for us to take."

By skipping the speech, Rubio argued, Democrats are only emboldening Khamenei and Israel's other enemies to take aggressive action against the country.

"If you boycott this speech, if a significant number of members of Congress boycott this speech, you will send an incredibly powerful message to Israel's enemies," he declared.

Pretty stern, and almost certainly unfair, stuff. But if nothing else, from Rubio's point of view this is pretty good politics. There's a very strong chance he'll at least consider running for president in 2016, and this kind of rhetoric would serve him well in the primary.

Though the overwhelming bulk of American Jews are Democrats, taking a strong pro-Israel stance is, if anything, more important for Republicans. Two critical Republican constituencies — neoconservatives and evangelical Christians — tend to care deeply about Israel. Polls consistently show that Republicans and churchgoers sympathize with Israel at higher rates than Democrats and more secular Americans (who are still quite pro-Israel):

republicans church israel

(Gallup)

While most voters aren't paying attention to Senate floor speeches, Rubio will be able to point to such performances in meetings with GOP foreign policy leaders such as Bill Kristol, donors such as casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, and major religious groups such as Christians United for IsraelKristol, for example, has already tweeted a video of Rubio's speech approvingly:

Conservative thought leaders, donors, and activist groups are crucially important in the Republican presidential primary. If Rubio runs, he'll likely be competing against a fair number of governors with little foreign policy experience. Building up support among conservatives who care about foreign policy makes sense for a senator who sits on the Senate's Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees.

Moreover, there's a constituency for a serious GOP candidate to take on Sen. Rand Paul, who wants to turn the party away from the hawkish neoconservatism that's defined its approach to foreign policy since 9/11. Rubio, by virtue of his resume, is very likely to make a point out of confronting Paul — and, in doing so, pick up support among some very important Republican groups.

So Rubio's comments weren't just a speech about Netanyahu's speech. They were a campaign event.