What's really behind harsh GOP responses to Obama's Middle East speech

How much of the Republican candidates' harsh reaction to President Obama's policy speech on the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue was campaign strategy?

Jim Cole / AP / File
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) of Minnesota, expected to announce his candidacy on Monday, shakes hands during a We the People candidates forum on April 30, in Manchester, N.H. From the campaign trail, Governor Pawlenty called Obama's border proposal a "mistaken and very dangerous demand."

The GOP presidential contenders’ harsh reaction to President Obama’s Middle East speech Thursday reflects multiple realities heading into the 2012 campaign.

First, the candidates need to demonstrate knowledge of foreign policy. Most of them have little first-hand experience in foreign affairs, and so going up against the now-experienced Mr. Obama presents a challenge – especially following the US military's killing of Osama bin Laden.

Second, Republicans will pounce on any comments by Obama that can be construed as overly harsh toward Israel, in a reflection of Israel’s special status in American politics. Obama needs a strong Jewish vote – and Jewish financial support – to win reelection, and so the Republicans will seize any opportunity to try to drive a wedge between Obama and Jewish voters.

Third, as the campaign heats up, it almost goes without saying that if Obama argues A, the Republican candidates will argue B. They need to create contrast wherever possible.

The most salient point of contrast came with Obama’s assertion that negotiations over a future Palestinian state should use the borders that predated the 1967 Six-Day War as a starting point. Republican candidates are ignoring the fact that Obama left some wiggle room on how exactly to draw new borders; he said they should be set “with mutually agreed swaps” of land. It was the first time an American president had fully articulated the US’s Israel-Palestine border position in public, and Republicans pounced.

“President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus,” said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “He has disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace.”

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is expected to announce his candidacy on Monday, called Obama’s border proposal a “mistaken and very dangerous demand.”

"To send a signal to the Palestinians that America will increase its demands on our ally Israel, on the heels of the Palestinian Authority's agreement with the Hamas terrorist organization, is a disaster waiting to happen,” Mr. Pawlenty said. “At this time of upheaval in the Middle East, it's never been more important for America to stand strong for Israel and for a united Jerusalem."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is trying to recover from a terrible campaign rollout week, called Obama’s speech a “disaster.”

“I understand he has already in effect offered concessions to the Palestinians, in advance of anything the Israelis do, in a way that could be a significant security threat to the Israelis,” Mr. Gingrich told reporters following him in Iowa.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who is best known for his strongly conservative views on social issues but has also given speeches devoted to foreign policy, also reacted harshly: The current administration needs to come to terms with its confused and dangerous foreign policy soon, as clarity and security are the necessary conditions of any serious and coherent American set of policies.”

One potential candidate who soft-pedaled his reaction was former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who, having just finished two years as US ambassador to China, is the only likely contender with major foreign policy experience. He did not release a formal statement, but speaking to reporters in Hanover, N.H., he offered this comment in response to a question: “If we respect and recognize Israel as the ally that it is, we probably ought to listen to what they think is best.”

If Mr. Huntsman runs, as expected, he will have to overcome reservations about his service in the Obama administration. But in a campaign expected to be dominated by the economy, not foreign policy, Huntsman may simply get credit for having significant foreign policy experience that his GOP rivals lack, without too much attention to the details.

One Republican pondering a presidential campaign – but who has taken few steps toward actually running – is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, whose forte is budget matters, not foreign policy. He did not release a statement on Obama’s speech, but did comment in an interview with talk radio host Michael Smerconish.

"What is going on in the Arab world these days has little or nothing to do with Israel or Palestine, it has to do with tyrannical regimes which have really stifled prospects for their people who are now restless for a better life,” Mr. Daniels said. “I don't think right now it pays very much of a dividend to try to cut the Gordian knot of Israel and Palestine."

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