Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

In Israel, Romney seeks to differentiate himself from Obama

YOU ARE IN: Home Page > Topics > Israel

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee in this November’s US presidential race, made the most of a visit to Israel on Sunday, creating daylight – not between the US and Israel under a future Romney Administration, but rather - between his views and attitudes towards Israel and its neighbours and those of the current Obama Administration.

In a speech before the Jerusalem Foundation on Sunday, Romney separated himself from US President Barack Obama on a number of issues, principally Iran, but also Jerusalem.

You will recall, it was during a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on March 5, when President Obama laid out his Administration’s red lines regarding Teheran’s illegal nuclear program.

We all know that it's unacceptable from Israel's perspective to have a country with a nuclear weapon that has called for the destruction of Israel.  But as I emphasized yesterday, it is profoundly in the United States' interest as well to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. [emphasis added]

My policy here is not going to be one of containment.  My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.  And as I indicated yesterday in my speech, when I say all options are at the table, I mean it.

On Sunday, however, Romney set his own bar for US confrontation with Iran critically lower:

We must not delude ourselves into thinking that containment is an option. We must lead the effort to prevent Iran from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability [emphasis added]. We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with you.

While some commentators have picked up on Romney’s subtle but significant improvement upon the Obama Administration’s position, some have not.

In a blog this week, columnist Shmuel Rosner cynically contended that the impression that Romney is tougher on Iran than Obama is a fallacy based upon a rhetorical sleight-of-hand.

“Everything Romney says about Iran is mere repetition and repackaging of the current American position,” wrote Rosner.

This is a position echoed by Anshel Pfeffer from Haaretz (subscription required):

“On just about every level, it is hard to imagine two presidential candidates as different as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But once you strip away the rhetoric and bombast of Romney’s visit to Israel and his speeches and interviews, you end up with two almost identical positions.”

Almost perhaps, but certainly not quite. While, again, both Obama and Romney have vowed to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons, Romney has now clearly gone further, stating plainly that his policy is to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons capability.

Over the months, Netanyahu has been adamant that Iran must be prevented from bringing its nuclear development to the point where they could assemble a bomb and weaponise in a short period of time.

In Israel’s view, such a clear and simple path to weaponisation would be tantamount to a loophole for Iran against US pressure, rendering meaningless Washington’s vow to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.

Mirroring Netanyahu’s own language on the subject, Romney’s speech on Sunday would bring US policy on Iran even closer to Israel’s.

In his analysis, Pfeffer assumes that it is implicit in Obama’s statements that he would act to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons capability for the very reason that there is really no practical situational difference dealing with a country that has nuclear weapons capability and one that has built a bomb. Yet there is nothing evident in Obama’s previous statements to support this assumption.

Romney’s choice of words on this issue was fully intentional. This becomes abundantly clear from a New York Times interview Dan Senor, adviser to Romney on Israel and co-author of “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle” gave ahead of Romney’s speeches.

“Previewing Mr. Romney’s remarks, Mr. Senor explained: ‘It is not enough just to stop Iran from developing a nuclear program. The capability, even if that capability is short of weaponization, is a pathway to weaponization, and the capability gives Iran the power it needs to wreak havoc in the region and around the world.’”

Besides Iran, Jerusalem was another hot topic during Romney’s visit to Israel, where Romney took every opportunity to endorse Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and thus easily differentiate himself from President Obama, who - for a number of reasons which I’ll get to in a moment - is quite reluctant to do himself.

In truth, the Jerusalem issue already began bubbling away in the US media in the two days before Romney’s trip.

On July 26, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney ducked a question on what city the Administration considered to be the capital of Israel: Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

After receiving criticism for Carney’s handling of the question, the White House did damage control, taking the unusual step of including the White House’s position on Jerusalem as a footnote to the transcript.

The status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. We continue to work with the parties to resolve this issue and others in a way that is just and fair, and respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

In the following press briefing on July 30, Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest went on the attack.

Well, our view is that [Romney’s view on Jerusalem is] a different position than this administration holds. It’s the view of this administration that the capital is something that should be determined in final status negotiations between the parties. I’d remind you that that’s the position that’s been held by previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican. So if Mr. Romney disagrees with that position, he’s also disagreeing with the position that was taken by Presidents like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. So, again, if he does disagree with that position, I would leave it to him to explain it.

Left unmentioned by the White House is that Obama also embraced Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while on the campaign trail. In an appearance before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in June 2008, Obama said “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”

He reiterated this sentiment the following month during a visit to Sderot.

Indeed, expressing support for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has been a tradition for US presidential candidates and the Republican presidential hopeful was no exception.

Besides calling Jerusalem Israel’s capital, Romney’s remarks in Israel also went further than he had previously on the issue of moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Sunday, Romney said that he would continue current US policy which is to “ultimately” move the US embassy to Jerusalem. In a curious twist, however, Romney said that the timing of the move would be purely dependent upon “consultations with the government of Israel.”

A little context: The US position on Jerusalem has historically been very complicated and separate to US support for Israel in general.

One important thing to understand though is that this has little to do with Israel’s capture of the eastern half of the city in 1967. Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital since 1950, but the US and most others states have refused to recognise this not because West Jerusalem, where Israel’s government has been located since then, is “occupied” - no one says it is - but because the long-superseded UN partition plan of 1947 called for all of Jerusalem to be a separate “international city,” run by the UN.

Bizarrely, this stance of refusing to acknowledge the city as Israel’s capital to leave open the possibility that this might still be implemented remains entrenched in the foreign policy of the US and many other countries, even though virtually no one advocates for this idea anymore.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of grassroots support in the US for recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, especially in Congress, and motivated primarily by Evangelical Christian sentiment. Guided by the State Department, the White House has resisted such a move as emotion-driven and counter to national interests.

In its view, such a move in the absence of international support would marginalise the US’ role as a broker in the peace process and unnecessarily antagonise America’s allies in the Arab world while getting the US nothing tangible in return.

As part of this internal dispute between the Legislative and Executive branches of government, Congress passed a law in 1995 mandating moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Implementation of that law has been delayed repeatedly since that time through the use of a presidential waiver on the grounds of national security, the most recent of which was exercised in June.

While Romney has surprised some by ostensibly making the timing of the Embassy move contingent on Israel’s preference, his concurrent assurance that he will continue existing US policy on the matter leaves wiggle room for interpretation that a potential president Romney, much like his predecessors, would delay the move indefinitely pending progress in the peace process.

At any rate, Romney’s promise has put him in good company with previous presidential candidates who have vowed to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, though it will remain to be seen whether he will fulfil that election promise if elected.

Beyond the issues raised by Romney in Israel, the Republican candidate also took pains to separate himself from Obama in tone as well as his general outlook on the US-Israel relationship and the Middle East. In fulfilment of a promise he made not to criticise the sitting president’s foreign policy on foreign soil, Romney was careful with his words and never mentioned Obama by name, but his remarks during his visit left no doubt that he viewed US interests in the region differently to his opponent.

Indeed, it was the contrast of Romney’s perception of the situation in the Middle East compared to Obama that shone through his remarks, blogged GLORIA Centre Director Barry Rubin.

Citing Palestinian terror, including the deadly attack on the Israeli delegation to the 1972 Olympics at Munich as well as the 2002 Hebrew University bombing, both of which coincided with this season, Romney said “They are a constant reminder of the reality of hate, and the will with which it is executed upon the innocent.”

Commented Rubin:

“’The reality of hate.’ This phrase used by Romney struck me as very significant. It occurred in the context of speaking about how many Arab and Muslim forces feel about Israel. It shows that he is aware that the desire to destroy and injure Israel goes beyond pragmatic considerations and is not something people will be talked out of trying to do. It is enormously important for an American president to understand that there are those in the Middle East who hate the United States and Israel and that it is impossible to appease or befriend them.”

Rubin also discerned a clear sign from Romney that he would handle the US-Israel relationship very differently to Obama.

Perhaps the speech’s most important line was this one:

‘We cannot stand silent as those who seek to undermine Israel, voice their criticisms. And we certainly should not join in that criticism.’

This is a critique of Obama’s argument that he would persuade the Arabs to end the conflict by distancing the United States from Israel.

This difference in attitude towards Israel was also discussed by Republican policy guru Elliott Abrams in his blog at the Council for Foreign Relations website. In Romney’s speech, Abrams saw in the candidate a natural affinity for Israel that, in his estimation, Obama lacks.

“Romney added something to his text in Jerusalem: “I love this country, I love America, I love the friendship we have.” That line does not appear in any prepared text the news media have carried, suggesting that Romney added it late in the drafting process or even while speaking. Like his other lines, it does not directly challenge U.S. policy or criticize the president, but it sets the two men apart; I have been unable to find any similar line from the president.”

For noted political commentator Daniel Pipes, who will visit Australia later this month, it was the faith-based content of Romney’s speech that stood out the most.

But of the whole speech, it is the final words that most struck me: "May God bless America, and may He bless and protect the Nation of Israel." When last did a politician ask the Lord to protect another country and not his own?

Romney’s visit was not without considerable controversy. Democrats back in the US were especially critical of Romney’s handling of the Palestinian issue during his visit.

First, they complained, Romney snubbed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, opting to meet instead with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The deepest criticism for Romney, however, was in response to his views over the economic disparity between Israelis and Palestinians in a speech at a fundraising breakfast during his visit.

(Incidentally, much had been made in the media of Romney’s fundraising success in Israel – at least US $1 million from the breakfast alone, as well as the ongoing support of casino magnate and Israeli media mogul Sheldon Adelson.)

Romney told the group of donors:

"As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about [US]$21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like [US]$10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality."

Commenting on this statement, the Israeli business newspaper Globes suggested the disparity may be actually even greater than Romney supposed: US$31,000 to US$1,500, although it is unclear from where they source their Palestinian data.

While Romney credited Israel’s “culture” and the “hand of providence” for its accomplishments, he did not explore the reasons why the Palestinian GDP was so low.

Palestinian Authority officials leapt upon this omission as a sign of callousness. Slamming Romney for “racism”, they stepped in with their own reasons for their economic woes. Predictably, they lay blame for the Palestinians poor economic outlook on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

"It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people," said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "It is a racist statement, and this man doesn't realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation."

"This will cause a lot of damage to American interests," he said.

Netanyahu sidestepped any potential controversy by refusing to give Romney preferential treatment during his visit or giving the impression of an endorsement.

That is not to say there was not mutual warmth expressed between Romney and Netanyahu, who are, from all accounts, on very friendly terms going back years.

Indeed in contrast to Republican President George W. Bush, who bonded with Israel’s the-PM Ariel Sharon and the centrist Kadima party he later founded, and Democratic President Bill Clinton, who was seen to prefer Israel’s Labor party, Romney may be the first US Presidential candidate who is most comfortable with the Netanyahu’s Likud.

In a telling moment, during his speech on Sunday, Romney quoted more than once former Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin – and not at all from the icons of Israel’s Left.

Equally telling was Romney’s last-minute decision to cancel a meeting with Opposition and Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovitch.

Netanyahu, however, was diplomatic. Reported the Jerusalem Post:

Asked whether Romney was his friend and whether he “likes him,” Netanyahu replied, “Well, look, here’s an answer that will – should satisfy you. I respect Mitt Romney as I respect Barack Obama, the president of the United States. And that’s the end of the ranking and the questions that you will undoubtedly try again and again to draw me into.”

In an effort not to have the appearance of taking sides in the US Presidential contest, in recent days the Israeli government acknowledged the positives of the Obama Administration’s record on Israel.

In an interview with CNN on July 31, Israeli Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Barak praised the US President effusively.

“I should honestly tell you that this administration under President Obama is doing in regard to our security more than anything that I can remember in the past," Barak said.

Romney’s Israel visit was accompanied by a new US $6.5 million campaign by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) to rally disillusioned Jewish Obama voters like New Yorker and RJC YouTube star Michael Goldstein, in hopes of peeling away the 78% support Obama received in 2008.

According to the latest Gallup Poll, that support is currently 68% (as opposed to 25% for Romney) and holding steady.

Democratic Party officials are fighting back. On July 27, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Bloomberg TV that Jewish voters were "being exploited" by the Republican Party.

On Sunday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who also happens to be the highest-ranking Jew in the US legislature, blasted Pelosi’s comments as "deeply insulting" and "patronizing."

“It is both patronizing and deeply insulting for Nancy Pelosi to suggest any Jew is 'exploited' for their political beliefs or that support for Israel is somehow an 'excuse' for anything," Cantor said. “Such thinking diminishes the importance of issues affecting Jews everywhere.”

Naturally, one of the things Obama could do to upstage Romney’s Israel visit is visit the country himself. However, despite numerous requests from his Jewish supporters to do so during his first term, Obama has thus far rejected this option.

In a message transmitted through his campaign team last week, the President has now apparently dangled the promise of an Israel visit in his second term as an incentive to rally Jewish support - and that of other American supporters of Israel, especially evangelical Christians (see American pundit Walter Russell Mead on this) for his reelection.

Ahron Shapiro

Most recent items in: Israel