By Susan Rosenbluth,
The Jewish Voice and Opinion
The difference between President Barack Obama’s and Republican Governor Mitt Romney’s policies and feelings towards Israel were apparent, when Mr. Romney was asked during one of their debates how he would handle a “surprise attack by Israel on Iran.
It was a scenario the Obama administration had prepared for in public, with various players and spokesmen emphasizing that they would be livid and there might be a price Israel would be forced to pay.
On the other hand, Mr. Romney told the moderator he was not concerned, because the hypothetical could not happen. “Our relationship with Israel would be so close, there would be no way or reason for us to be surprised,” he said.
In Israel, Gil Ronen, an analyst for Arutz Sheva, said the difference between Messrs Obama and Romney is often the “music” rather than the words.
“Whereas on the surface, Obama’s and Romney’s policy statements on the Middle East, especially Iran, are almost identical, the ‘music’ from Romney’s statements is markedly different from that emanating from Obama’s. The obviously good chemistry that Romney has with Netanyahu, compared to the frigid relationship between the Israeli leader and Obama, is further evidence of this,” said Mr. Ronen.
Like many others, Mr. Romney has recalled that one of Mr. Obama’s early foreign policy goals was to put “daylight” between the US and Israel, a strategy geared to bringing the US closer to some of Israel’s enemies. In this view, if the US was seen as separate from Israel, the Islamists might no longer view Washington as their foe.
The “daylight” strategy has not been mentioned recently by Mr. Obama. During the third debate with Mr, Romney, held in Boca Raton, Florida, Mr. Obama spoke about Israel and his admiration for the Jewish state eleven times. Along with Iran, China, and the recent catastrophe in Libya, Israel was the most dominant topic of the debate.
According to pundit John Podhoretz, this was no accident.
“How he really feels about Israel isn’t the point. The point is the President wants people in the US to think he likes the Jewish State very, very, very much. He wants them to think he believes Israel is ‘our greatest ally in the region’ when only a few months ago he had described it merely as ‘one of our allies in the region.’ He wants them to think he’s responsible for ‘unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation’ with Israel when in fact he’s merely continued his predecessor’s policies,” said Mr. Podhoretz.
An Englewood resident who viewed the debate but requested anonymity agreed. “Romney and Obama both want to appear pro-Israel, but Obama has a record of anti-Israel statements and actions. How could we forget his remarks to [then-French President Nicolas] Sarkozy that he, too, intensely disliked Netanyahu; or that he had publicly insisted that Israel retreat to the pre-1967, indefensible lines. He said he wanted to put ‘daylight’ between the US and Israel, and he certainly accomplished that,” he said.
The Englewood viewer said he found it particularly galling that when the President publicly recognized countries that had given humanitarian aid to Haiti after its disastrous earthquake in 2010, the only country he failed to mention was Israel. In fact, Israel’s mobile hospital was the first foreign medical aid to arrive in Haiti and the Jewish state’s efforts for Haiti were exceeded only by those of the US.
At the time, many pundits suggested the President acted as he did because none of the Arab countries had offered Haiti aid, and Mr. Obama feared a negative reaction from Arab and Muslim states if he were to praise Israel without lauding them, too.
According to Mr. Podhoretz, Mr. Obama’s change of policy—if not change of heart—is due to the fact that “it appears certain that Obama will get the lowest share of the Jewish vote for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1980.”
Few would suggest that Jews will not vote overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama. But some Republicans are making an aggressive attempt to win them over, especially in important swing states.
Focusing on South Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Nevada, some of the Republican super PACs spent millions of dollars on both on-air and ground efforts to reach Jewish voters who are increasingly questioning Mr. Obama’s stance on relations with Israel.
In South Florida, Republican-sponsored billboards on Interstate 95, aimed at Jewish voters in Boca Raton and Broward County, proclaimed “Obama…Oy Vey” followed by the question: “Had enough?”
On the Internet and on television, a series of “buyer’s remorse” ads featured Jewish voters who had supported Obama in 2008, yet in 2012 were disappointed with how he had managed the country’s economy and relations with Israel. This time, the Jewish voters in the ads supported Mr. Romney.
One ad featured Brad, a New York-based attorney, who said one of the reasons he would not be supporting Mr. Obama this year was that while the President did visit the Jewish state as a candidate, he did not go at all once he was elected.
“I find it unbelievable that President Obama, who alleges that he is a very strong friend of Israel, has never stepped foot in that country since he’s been President. He’s been to many countries around it, more than once, but never set foot in Israel. That’s a problem for me,” he said,
Democratic leaders believe such ads represent only wishful thinking on the part of Republicans, but Mr. Romney’s supporters point out that even if only a few more Jewish voters pull the lever for GOP candidates, it could spell the difference in tight races.
Style and Sensitivities
On the issue of Israel’s security, many Jews who support Mr. Romney recognize that they prefer Mr. Romney’s style and sensitivities. For example, like Mr. Obama, Mr. Romney has not said he is considering going to war with Iran, but he seems more likely to apply stiffer sanctions without allowing loopholes.
“I do not believe that, in the final analysis we will have to use military action. I certainly hope we don’t have to,” Mr. Romney said recently, adding that he would “not take that option off the table.”
“It must be something which is known by the Iranians as a possible tool to be employed to prevent them from becoming nuclear. But I certainly hope that we can prevent any military action from having to be taken,” he said.
In an interview, he said he and Mr. Netanyahu had discussed the issue when Mr. Romney visited Israel last summer.
Last month, at the UN General Assembly, Mr. Netanyahu delivered a speech in which he discussed the dangers of allowing Iran to achieve nuclear capability. During that speech, Mr. Netanyahu drew with a marker a red line on a chart depicting Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. He explained that Iran must be told that if it reaches sufficient uranium enriched to the 90 percent level in order to make a nuclear bomb, the country will be attacked.
After their talk, Mr. Romney expressed solidarity with Mr. Netanyahu’s concerns.
“I stand with Prime Minister Netanyahu,” said Mr. Romney. “I join in his call for a Middle East of progress and peace. I join his urgent call to prevent the gravest threat to that vision: a nuclear-armed Iran. The designs of the Iranian regime are a threat to America, Israel, and our friends and allies around the world,” he said.
He criticized Mr. Obama for “failing to curtail Iran’s ambition to build a nuclear weapon,” but when asked if there was any difference on where he and Mr. Netanyahu would draw the red line, Mr. Romney was less explicit.
“We did not go into the kind of detail that would define precisely where that red line would be,” he said, adding that he did not think military action would be necessary, because when met with strength and firmness, the Iranians would back down.
Many pro-Israel supporters of Mr. Romney expressed chagrin at the President’s seeming dismissal of their fears. During an interview on the television program 60 Minutes, Mr. Obama likened Israeli pressure on him to draw a clear “red line” against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to “noise,” which the President said he tries to ignore.
“When it comes to our national security decisions, any pressure that I feel is simply to do what’s right for the American people. And I am going to block out any noise that’s out there,” he said.
Asked to comment, Mr. Romney’s campaign said the President’s “noise” comment was “the latest evidence of his chronic disregard for the security of our closest ally in the Middle East.”
According to a White House statement, Mr. Obama finally did speak to Mr. Netanyahu for about 20 minutes on the telephone on a “range of security issues,” which included Iran.
“The two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” said the statement.
Mr. Obama’s critics say this is not the first time the President has issued statements that seem very pro-Israel, only to contradict or “clarify” them later. As a candidate he told AIPAC supporters that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital “and must never be divided.” One day later, he said his words had been “unfortunate” and that what he meant was that the city should not have “barbed wire running through it.”
Just recently, the Obama administration would not even identify Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
A New Course
At the beginning of October, Mr. Romney published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he accused Mr. Obama of damaging Israel’s security and discrediting the US as a power in the Middle East. Mr. Romney castigated the President for his “failed policies” and vowed he could and would do better.
In the piece, entitled “A New Course for the Middle East,” Mr. Romney said that despite Mr. Obama’s early promises to enhance the relationship between the US and Israel, he had actually “downgraded Israel from being our ‘closest ally’ in the Middle East to being only ‘one of our closest allies.’”
In fact, when asked recently to identify the leader to whom he feels closest in the Middle East, Mr. Obama named the virulently anti-Israel Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
That, said Mr. Romney, was a clear message to Israel as well as the enemies of the Jewish state that Mr. Obama was prepared to sacrifice Israel if he deemed it expedient.
In the op-ed, Mr. Romney said the President had ruined America’s ability to act in the Middle East. “By failing to maintain the elements of our influence and by stepping away from our allies, President Obama has heightened the prospect of conflict and instability,” said Mr. Romney.
He said Mr, Obama “seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them” and “he does not understand that an American policy that lacks resolve can provoke aggression and encourage disorder.”
The solution, said Mr. Romney, is to chart a new course in the Middle East, one that would “set a new strategy” that would allow the US to lead rather than be led.
End to Leading from Behind
It was a theme Mr. Romney repeated in early October when he delivered a major foreign policy address at the Virginia Military Institute just after the terrorist murders in Benghazi, Libya, of four Americans, including the US Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Even while the Obama administration was still insisting the terrorist attack on the embassy was “a spontaneous reaction” to a privately-made video clip that insulted the Prophet Mohammed, Mr. Romney recognized that it “should not be seen as a random act,” but, rather, he said, as an expression “of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East.”
While he laid the blame for the murders “solely on those who carried them out,” he said it was “the responsibility of our President to use America’s great power to shape history—not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events.”
“Unfortunately, that is exactly where we find ourselves in the Middle East under President Obama,” he said.
As a result, he said, “the relationship between the President of the US and the Prime Minister of Israel, our closest ally in the region, has suffered great strains.”
“I know the President hopes for a safer, freer, and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope. But hope is not a strategy. We cannot support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds, when our defense spending is being arbitrarily and deeply cut, when we have no trade agenda to speak of, and the perception of our strategy is not one of partnership, but of passivity,” he said.
Mr. Romney said that as President, he would organize foreign policy around “bedrock principles: America must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose, and resolve in our might.”
“No friend of America will question our commitment to support them; no enemy that attacks America will question our resolve to defeat them; and no one anywhere, friend or foe, will doubt America’s capability to back up our words,” he said.
In practical terms, he said, this would mean “put[ting] the leaders of Iran on notice that the US and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.” He said he would use American influence on Egyptian leaders—“including clear conditions on our aid”—to ensure that the Egyptian government “represents all Egyptians, builds democratic institutions, and maintains its peace agreement with Israel.”
And, he said, he would “reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security.”
“The world must never see any daylight between our two nations,” he said.
“Reckless and Amateurish”
Mr. Obama’s campaign countered Mr. Romney’s speech with an ad which called the Republican candidate’s trip to England, Israel, and Poland last July “reckless” and “amateurish.” It also complained about his “knee-jerk response” to violent Islamist demonstrations, including terror attacks, in the Middle East.
The viewer in Englewood seemed surprised at the ad for Mr. Obama. “In Israel, Romney was greeted as if he already were the head of state, and in Warsaw, he was endorsed by Lech Walesa, the George Washington of modern, post-communist Poland. In London, the press said he had made a gaffe because he was critical of some of the questionable security measures surrounding the Olympics. If a Presidential candidate’s concern for security is a gaffe, then may he have many more,” he said.
An Albright “C”
In an Obama campaign-sponsored telephone press conference, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, a Democrat who served in the administration of former President Bill Clinton, condemned Mr. Romney for saying he would put any conditions on aid to Egypt, including Cairo’s maintaining its peace agreement with Israel.
Aid to Egypt, she said, “is very much needed now in order to make sure that they are able to pursue what is good for us and for them in terms of getting people back on the right track and the job issues.”
“If you load conditions on aid, you can’t get anything done because you completely lose your leverage,” she said.
Referring to Mr. Romney’s foreign policy speech, Ms. Albright said she found him “very shallow.” “If one of my students turned it in, he’d get a C,” she said.
According to Mr. Podhoretz, statements such as Ms. Albright’s and the sudden exhibitions of love for Israel from Mr. Obama are evidence of the Democrats’ nervousness.
“Liberal Jews seem certain Obama will have the appeal to their co-religionists he had in 2008. But Obama himself doesn’t seem sure—and that may be the most meaningful indication of all,” said Mr. Podhoretz.