By Alexander Bolton - 05/28/14 06:00 AM EDT
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is making it clear that he and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have very different policies on Israel.
The Texas senator, best known for his efforts to derail ObamaCare, is now pivoting to foreign policy. He is traveling to Israel and Ukraine this week and has scheduled meetings with senior Israeli government officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. He has scheduled meetings with Jewish and Catholic leaders in Ukraine.
Cruz has pledged to Jewish leaders that the United States must do whatever it takes to defend Israel’s national security interests.
“There’s no one in Congress I’ve met that is stronger on supporting Israel and strong U.S.-Israel relations than Ted Cruz,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America. “His understanding of the reality and truth of the Arab war against Israel is really second to none.
“And it is clear that this support for Israel comes from the bottom of his heart,” he added.
Cruz plans to speak after the Israel Day parade in Manhattan on Sunday and at the Conference of Presidents for Major American Jewish Organizations the following day, according to Klein.
The 43-year-old Tea Party lawmaker chided Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, earlier this year for not being willing to defend American values abroad.
“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul. He and I are good friends. But I don’t agree with him on foreign policy,” Cruz told ABC News in a March 9 interview. “I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world.”
He said he agreed with Paul that the U.S. should be cautious about deploying military forces abroad but added, “the United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”
Like other Republicans, Cruz emphasizes that he shares former President Ronald Reagan’s vision of the nation playing a “vital role.”
Paul took a veiled shot at Cruz and other GOP critics by arguing that they have misappropriated Reagan’s views.
“Today we forget that some of the Republican hawks of his time criticized Reagan harshly … calling him an appeaser,” he wrote in an op-ed for Breitbart.com.
Paul told Klein, who is close to Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, that he would vote to continue aid to Israel if the question came down to his vote.
John Ullyot, a Republican strategist who worked for former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.), said Cruz is making a play for conservative primary voters who have shifted further to the right on foreign policy over the last decade.
“Since George W. Bush’s first term, there’s been a real push in terms of Republican base voters wanting candidates to be really strong on Israel. You almost can’t be too far to the right if you’re thinking about running for president. It’s the neocon vote,” Ullyot said.
An increasing number of Republicans favor retrenching U.S. military involvement overseas in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But Ullyot said, “There’s still a clear upper hand to neoconservatives” among Republican primary voters who cast their ballots on the basis of foreign policy.
Should he run for the White House, Paul’s challenge is to convince GOP primary voters that his foreign policy views are in the mainstream of the party. He will also have to distance himself from certain statements his father, ex-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), made on the presidential campaign trail.
Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said drawing a contrast with Paul would be crucial to Cruz’s White House aspirations.
“Ted Cruz knows he needs to be not Rand Paul if he is to run successfully for president,” she said.
However, Cruz has yet to convince some crucial players that he shares Reagan’s foreign policy convictions and commitment to defending U.S. interests internationally.
“I haven’t seen him talk about our presence in Afghanistan; I haven’t seen talk about Syria in a serious way; I haven’t seen him talk about anything other than what he thinks are the hot-button electoral issues, i.e. Russia and Israel,” said Pletka. “I’d be delighted if Ted Cruz was a foreign policy Reaganite, but so far, I’m withholding judgment.”
An aide to Cruz argued that the senator has spoken out on Syria on several occasions, such as in August, when he called on President Obama to call Congress back from recess for a special session to discuss military intervention in the wake of a chemical attack.
Cruz staked out his foreign policy views in a major speech at the Heritage Foundation in September where he warned, “When America doesn’t lead, the world is a much, much more dangerous place.”
He says U.S. foreign policy should be pegged to three principles: protecting national security, speaking with moral clarity and always fighting to win.
“It was American exceptionalism that stood up to the Soviet Union and freed hundreds of millions from behind the Iron Curtain. So Putin is right to be concerned about American exceptionalism,” he said after Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized U.S. foreign policy in a New York Times op-ed.
Paul has taken a more skeptical view of the concept. He has called fellow Republicans who attempt to impose American values abroad as “neoisolationists.”
“The neocons are really neoisolationists,” he told The New York Times, “in the sense that they are so hardened — that everybody should behave like us, and everybody in the world should be in our image — that they discount the concept of looking at things realistically and negotiating with people who don’t have our point of view.”
Cruz and Paul have worked together on foreign policy issues. They teamed up to strip proposed International Monetary Fund reforms from a Ukraine aid package that passed Congress in March.
This article was updated at 2:10 p.m. to include the date of Cruz's comment to ABC News.