US Republican presidential candidates tout Israel support in speeches to Jewish donors

By Alexandra Ulmer

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) -U.S. Republican presidential candidates including frontrunner Donald Trump touted their unwavering support for Israel wiping out Palestinian Hamas militants, as they campaigned with addresses to major Jewish donors in Las Vegas on Saturday.

The Republican Jewish Coalition's (RJC) weekend donor gathering has taken on heightened importance as Israel prepares a ground invasion of Gaza following a surprise attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 that Israeli authorities say killed more than 1,400 people. Gaza's health authorities say more than 7,000 Palestinians have been killed in retaliatory Israeli air strikes.

Support for Israel is a hallmark of American Republican politics. Still, around 1,500 donors gathered in Las Vegas were seeking firmer expressions of commitment as Israel faces growing criticism from human rights groups for its air strikes in Gaza, a densely populated area.

"The United States will stand with Israel 100% - without hesitation, without qualification and without any apology. We're not going to be apologizing," Trump said to massive cheers, later adding he would sanction Iran and crack down on pro-Palestinian protests on U.S. campuses.

"If you spill a drop of American blood, we will spill a gallon of yours," Trump said.

Candidate Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor who has campaigned as a foreign policy hawk, criticized an isolationist trend in the Republican Party. She cited lackluster support for Ukraine from some during its war with Russia.

"Mark my words: Those who would abandon Ukraine today are at risk of abandoning Israel tomorrow," said Haley, who is jostling with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to be the leading Trump alternative.

Haley also notably ratcheted up her criticism of Trump, under whom she served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

"We all know what Trump did in the past. The question is: What will he do in the future?" said Haley. "We cannot have four years of chaos, vendettas and drama."

DeSantis did not go after Trump directly as he also vowed to support Israel. "Israel values life, and Hamas worships death," said DeSantis.

The event was overshadowed by former Vice-President Mike Pence announcing he was ending his cash-strapped presidential campaign. Pence did not endorse anyone.

DONOR RETICENCE

While many establishment Republican donors are opposed to Trump and are seeking an alternative, DeSantis and Haley may struggle to get them to open their wallets. Trump, fueled by small-dollar donors, is the runaway favorite to win the Republican nomination process that kicks off in Iowa on Jan. 15.

Trump was rebuked by Israel and the White House earlier this month after calling the Lebanese Hezbollah, a sworn enemy of Israel, "very smart" and accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of being "not prepared" for the Hamas attack.

Trump later said there had been "no better friend or ally of Israel" than when he was U.S. president.

The RJC itself does not endorse in the Republican primary, but it does spend on the general election, when the Republican nominee will likely face off against Democratic President Joe Biden.

"In 2020, we raised and spent in excess of $10 million to help Trump get the largest share of the Jewish vote in history," Washington-based RJC's chief executive officer, Matt Brooks, told Reuters in an interview. "And we plan to do the same, if not more, with our nominee going forward."

Brooks said RJC donors separately spent between $50 million and $60 million on the 2020 election cycle.

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Additional reporting by Moira Warburton; Editing by Ross Colvin, David Gregorio and Daniel Wallis)