In what might be called a preemptive strike, President Obama chose to hold a White House ceremony signing into law the US-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act on Friday – two days before Republican challenger Mitt Romney visits the Jewish state.
Governor Romney will sit down with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders on Sunday, as part of his efforts to juxtapose his own high regard for Israel with what he says has been Mr. Obama’s “shabby treatment” of America’s closest Middle East ally.
Romney’s objective: to cut into the whopping 78 percent of the Jewish vote that Mr. Obama won in 2008, while firming up his own luke-warm support among some evangelical Christians who have questioned his passion for Israel.
But by highlighting his administration’s commitment to Israel’s security only hours before Romney arrives in Jerusalem, Obama is signaling that he plans to cede no ground when it comes to Israel and the debate over how his administration has treated it.
What the battle suggests is that, among foreign policy issues, Israel is an emotion-laden topic that both campaigns believe they can turn to their advantage – and that means this week’s tit-for-tat over Israel is likely to be only the beginning.
Both Obama and Romney speak of America’s unshakable friendship with Israel: Obama claiming that no president has done more for Israel’s security than he has, Romney insisting the president has downgraded the two nations’ close links, in particular by not visiting Israel once during his three-plus years in office.
But the one-upmanship over Israel has heated up recently among campaign surrogates – in part because Romney, who on Wednesday commenced a seven-day international trip, committed to silencing his criticisms of the president while overseas.
After Vice President Joe Biden said this week that Obama “has done more for Israel’s security than any president since Harry Truman,” former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton called Mr. Biden’s statement “ridiculous” – and offered his own superlative.
“This is the most hostile president since the state of Israel was created,” Ambassador Bolton said on Fox News.
The sparring over Israel – and the administration’s record on it – spilled over into a foreign policy “discussion” the Brookings Institution held in Washington on Wednesday with representatives of the two campaigns.
Rich Williamson, a senior Romney foreign policy and defense adviser who served in the George W. Bush administration, skirted the evidence of Obama’s security commitment to Israel by zeroing in on what he called a lack of close ties, saying “political cooperation has not existed.”
Not only has Obama not visited Israel as president, he said, but he reminded the audience that Biden had shown “disrespect” for Israel when he delayed his arrival at a March 2010 dinner meeting at Mr. Netanyahu’s residence to protest an announcement of new settlement construction.
“The vice president of the United States kept the Israeli head of state [sic] waiting 90 minutes for dinner because he was having a temper tantrum,” Mr. Williamson said. “You don’t treat any head of state that way, let alone your friend.” [As prime minister, Netanyahu is head of government.]
In response, Michele Flournoy, a former under secretary of Defense for policy and now co-chair of the Obama campaign’s national security advisory committee, said it is more important to look at what Obama has done for Israel – for example, the Iron Dome anti-missile system to protect from incoming rockets from Gaza – than whether or not he has traveled there.
“When you judge a president’s commitment to Israel, you have to look beyond the itinerary,” Ms. Flournoy said, noting that Ronald Reagan never visited Israel and that George W. Bush only visited as president in his second term.
Any discussion of Israel sooner or later leads to the topic of Iran and its nuclear program – and on that topic the two camps are just as hotly divided.
Bolton scoffs at administration claims that Obama has been good for Israel’s security, countering that the president’s focus on “dialogue” with Tehran has allowed the Iranian program to advance and thus to increase the danger not just to Israel’s security, but the world’s.
At Brookings, Flournoy said the administration’s Iran diplomacy had resulted in “the toughest sanctions ever on Iran,” but she also noted that Obama has repeatedly warned Iran that all options remain on the table if diplomacy does not curtail what the West believes is its march toward the bomb.
As for the military option, Flournoy said, “Pentagon planning for this is incredibly robust. It’s there.”
Romney is certain to discuss all of these issues while in Israel, but given his pledge, any criticism of Obama will at most come behind closed doors.
That will hold true for Netanyahu as well, who – despite his longtime personal friendship with Romney – would be loath to openly criticize a US president, especially one who might be around for another four years.
To paint a harmonious picture of Obama-Israel relations, Flournoy cited Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders praising the president’s commitment to Israel. Not giving an inch, Williamson said reading a list of quotes showed “the defensiveness of the administration” on the topic of Israel.
Despite undeniable tensions between Obama and Netanyahu, analysts in both countries say the working relationship between the two is better than what might meet the eye. Netanyahu has repeatedly spoken of how he called on Obama last year when Israeli citizens were under threat at their country’s consulate in Cairo – and Obama got on it with Egyptian leaders and resolved the problem.