Speaking before the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas on Saturday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie uttered a faux pas that raised a few eyebrows among attendees — including billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who is searching for the right candidate to back in 2016.
Christie was talking about a trip to Israel he took with his family in 2012:
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.”
The reference to “occupied territories” sent a murmur through the crowd. Most conservative Jews reject the Palestinian designation of Gaza and the West Bank being “occupied,” so the gaffe was not insignificant.
But neither is it a campaign killer. Christie met later with Adelson and apologized:
Not long after his speech, Christie met with Adelson privately in the casino mogul’s office in the Venetian hotel and casino, which hosted the RJC meeting.
The source told POLITICO that Christie “clarified in the strongest terms possible that his remarks today were not meant to be a statement of policy.”
(Also on POLITICO: Kasich bonds with Adelson in Vegas)
Instead, the source said, Christie made clear “that he misspoke when he referred to the ‘occupied territories.’ And he conveyed that he is an unwavering friend and committed supporter of Israel, and was sorry for any confusion that came across as a result of the misstatement.”
Adelson accepted Christie’s explanation, the source said.
The mini-controversy and quick apology highlight both the importance of Adelson as the reigning mega-donor in GOP politics, as well as the tricky terrain that Middle East politics can pose for American politicians courting Jewish donors and voters.
Before the meeting, Adelson ally Morton Klein, president of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, had confronted Christie about his use of the term, telling POLITICO he explained to the New Jersey governor that “at minimum you should call it disputed territories.”
Christie was non-committal, said Klein, who concluded afterwards that the governor “either doesn’t understand the issue at all, or he’s hostile to Israel.”
Besides the comment, Christie largely impressed the crowd Saturday night with tales of his own trips to Israel.
He also criticized the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy, which the crowd distrusts deeply.
“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,” Christie said to loud applause.
Christie recounted meeting the hawkish Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an RJC favorite, and being “extraordinarily taken by his strength and resolve.”
Christie was one of three Republican governors to speak to the crowd Saturday night. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio also spoke to the crowd, offering a strong defense of Israel, too.
Sheldon Adelson is emerging as the Whale of Whales for the Republican Party. He supported Newt Gingrich in the 2012 primaries, and donated heavily to Mitt Romney’s campaign. That election cycle, he spent $92 million in supporting GOP candidates at every level.
For good or ill, Adelson will be a kingmaker in 2016. There are other bundlers who will give valuable assistance to other candidates, but it appears that when Adelson goes in, he goes all in — something that will give whomever he supports a leg up heading into the primaries.
As for Christie, it’s not a good sign that he didn’t realize beforehand that “occupied territories” was a loaded phrase. It’s doubly disturbing that he appeared to be unaware of the significance of his mistake. Is he tone deaf? Or simply stubborn? I can’t believe Morton Klein’s suggestion that Christie is “hostile” to Israel, so perhaps the governor should educate himself on the peace process so he doesn’t make any more “misstatements” that get him into hot water with an important party group.