Invoking a 2012 trip he and his family took to Israel, Christie recalled in the speech: “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.”
While the story was intended to forge common cause with Adelson and the several hundred donors to the Republican Jewish Coalition to which Christie was speaking, his use of the term “occupied territories” set off murmurs in the crowd. The term refers to lands in which Palestinians live where Israel maintains a military presence, including the West Bank.
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But the term is rejected by some conservative Zionists like Adelson who see it as validating Palestinian challenges over Israel’s presence. Other supporters of Israel oppose the use of the term as well.
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.”
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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.”
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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.
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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.
The three governors are considered likely contenders for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. Party stalwarts hope their attendance this weekend will help convince Adelson to support an establishment candidate in the next presidential, rather than a dark horse candidate like Newt Gingrich who he propped up with millions in 2012.