The question matters in part because Jewish voters could play a decisive role if the contest is tight in a key state like, say, Florida. Another reason is that Romney is using the issue to try to firm up his support among Christian evangelicals.
But Romney is also pounding on the best-friend question as a way to cast wider doubt on Obama’s foreign policy, which is an area where the president scores comparatively high marks with voters. Thus the Republican hopeful, when addressing foreign policy issues, paints Obama as preferring to dialogue with Russia or the Muslim world (as in his 2009 Cairo speech) or even Iran (in international nuclear talks) over deepening America’s close ties with a country like Israel that shares the same values.
To sharpen the differences, Romney says he would make Israel his first overseas destination as president. Not stopping there, he has also made TV ads – one asking, “Who shares your values?” – in which he questions why Obama has not visited Israel as president.
The Obama campaign responds by pointing out that President Reagan never visited Israel, and that George W. Bush visited as president only in the last year of his second term.
But Obama aides also make the case that when it comes to supporting Israel, the president has been more about actions than words or gestures – citing, for example, US funding of the Iron Dome missile-defense system to protect Israel from incoming rockets from Gaza.
And they tell the story of how Obama responded to a frantic phone call in early September 2011 from Netanyahu, who feared for the lives of Israeli guards caught in Israel’s embassy in Cairo as it came under mob attack.
In response, Obama launched contacts with the highest levels of what was then Egypt’s interim military government, and the Israelis were rescued and released unharmed. In a radio address the next day, Netanyahu said that he had requested Obama’s assistance at a “fateful” moment and that the president “said he would do everything possible, and that is what he did.” Israelis, he said, “owe [Obama] a special debt of gratitude.”
In the Romney camp, advisers point out that the warming trend in US-Israel relations occurred over the past year, and they suggest the president’s objectives may be as much political as building what Romney says should be “unbreakable ties” with a best friend.