With Romney visit, Israelis worry about becoming a partisan issue

Presidential challenger Mitt Romney is promising to give Israel a freer hand with Iran while President Obama announced $70 million in additional military aid to the country.

Nir Elias/Reuters
US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney places a note in the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site July 29. Romney would back Israel if it were to decide it had to use military force to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, a senior aide said on Sunday.

Mitt Romney’s visit to Jerusalem on Sunday prompted an escalation in the competition among candidates to demonstrate who’s a stronger supporter of the Jewish state.               

The campaign of the Republican nominee portrayed itself as more aggressive against Iran and more willing to give Israel a free hand in a potential attack than the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the president on Friday announced $70 million in additional military aid to help develop a rocket system to intercept missiles from Gaza and Lebanon.  

The high profile battle surrounding the state of ties between the allies has inserted Israel into the campaign as never before. But Israeli officials and analysts are anxious about that spotlight, and would prefer to be more of an afterthought. That’s because an election debate over Israel could damage long term ties between they countries by risking the Jewish state's long cultivated bipartisan support in Washington.

"We don’t want to be part of the issue," says an Israeli diplomat, who was not authorized to speak. "We have very strong bi-partisan support and we want to keep it that way. We want there to be strong relations with the US. Not with blue or red."    

Speaking to reporters, Romney foreign policy aide Dan Senor said that if Israel were to launch a lone attack on Iranian nuclear sites, Mr. Romney "would respect that decision," seemingly going further than the Obama administration toward a green light for Israel.  

Romney is scheduled to make a speech shortly and will hold a fundraising dinner tomorrow morning. 

This is the second presidential election in which the Jewish state has become a campaign stop. In 2008, both Obama and Sen. John McCain took breaks from campaigning in the US to visit here.

Romney's broader critique

But the open bickering between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over the peace process with the Palestinians and how to confront Iran has made support for Israel an issue for debate, and part of Romney’s broader foreign policy critique that the administration has failed to stand behind allies and projected weakness.

Romney’s visit is also seen as an attempt to indirectly highlight the fact that President Obama did not visit Israel in his first four years of office when he visited other American allies in the Muslim world, stirring up criticism from some Israelis.

"Romney feels that the president may be somewhat vulnerable. Romney may sense that there is some Israeli dismay at some Obama policies and sees an opportunity," said David Horvitz, the editor of the Times of Israel news website. "Unfortunately, Israel has become an issue of greater partisan debate than it used to…. That’s tremendously to Israel’s detriment."

Despite Romney’s oft-quoted allegation that Obama has "thrown" Israel "under the bus," many Israelis are unfamiliar with Romney because they aren’t paying attention to the US election. A recent poll  among Israeli Jews by the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, an institute at Bar Ilan University, showed Romney with a 7 percentage point edge over Obama regarding who would better promote Israel’s interests, but 49 percent said they don’t know.

Jewish-American voters at stake

At stake is an attempt by Romney to make inroads with the Jewish American community who have solidly supported Democratic presidential candidates. In 2008, Obama was favored by 74 percent of American Jews, second only to African Americans among demographic groups, but now that support is at only 68 percent, according to a recent Gallup survey. Some believe that only a slight shift could help capture a crucial swing state like Florida, where Jews make up a significant chunk of the registered voters.

Some have accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is known to be on better terms with Republican politicians than Democrats, of feeding into the polarization. Standing alongside Romney on Sunday, the Israeli prime minister took a dig at the administration by saying the administration’s policy of sanctions and diplomacy to pressure Iran had failed to delay Iran's drive for nuclear weapons.

"We have to be honest and say that all the sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota," he said.

Just two weeks ago US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Jerusalem that sanctions and diplomacy had brought unprecedented pressure on Tehran and needed more time to work.

Bilateral polarization

Some see the increased partisanship as a natural expression of the affinity between the two countries’ respective ideological rivals: The Republicans are more drawn to Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, and Democrats find common cause with social democrats on the Israeli left, like the Labor Party. A scheduled visit between Romney and the Israeli Labor Party leader was cancelled. 

Republicans and the Israeli right see common cause "on three issues: the Land of Israel, religion, and family values," says Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster. "There’s a natural connection to the Israeli left to the Democrats, and vice versa: That’s based on share values of democracy, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and protection of minorities."

But that risks upsetting a key strategy by pro-Israel allies in the US of cultivating support among both Democrats and Republicans in order to ensure that there’s continuity of US support for Israel regardless of who controls the White House or the Congress.

"It was very easy to stay out of this when American presidential candidates didn’t come to Israel three or four months before the election," says one American Jewish official active in boosting bilateral ties. "If it looks like you look like you are backing one, and the other gets elected, you are in trouble."

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