Mitt Romney will "lock arms" with Israel's conservative leadership when he visits Jerusalem next week, a top foreign policy advisor said, as he tries to draw a symbolic contrast with President Barack Obama on foreign soil.
The policy differences between Obama and Romney on Israel are not entirely clear, and Romney has not laid out a detailed plan for the region, but the presumptive Republican nominee will try to out-love Obama in the Jewish state with a public display of his support for the country and its leadership.
“He’s looking forward to not only reconnecting with a number of them — to listen and to learn — but he also feels strongly about the importance of locking arms with a number of these leaders in Israel,” the advisor, Dan Senor, told reporters on Thursday.
A frequent line in Romney’s stump speech is that there should be “no daylight” between leaders of the United States and Israel — an implicit contrast with the icy personal relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama that Romney will play up on his trip.
But Romney will likely leave out his claim that if elected he will look to what Obama has done with respect to Israel and do the opposite back in the United States, largely because it doesn’t reflect the actual relationship between the two countries.
“That was an unfortunate line,” said one top Israeli foreign ministry official on the condition of anonymity. “President Obama could be more friendly, but his actions have been almost 100 percent behind us.”
Obama has increased aid to the country — most notably for a short-range missile defense system successfully deployed to intercept rockets fired from Gaza. Additionally, administration officials point to its forceful rejection of the Goldstone Report criticizing Israel's Gaza invasion and other international attempts to isolate Israelon the world stage.
“It would kind of scare the Israelis if he said he’d do the opposite,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami of the liberal pro-Israel organization J-Street. “That’s fine as a political talking point, but one hopes when one goes abroad that one doesn’t say things that are irresponsible to score political points. Everyone in the Israeli establishment would tell him that security cooperation between the two countries has never been closer.”
Romney’s remarks are expected to stay away from policy — always a political minefield for a challenger when overseas — and instead draw a contrast with Obama on tone.
“Every time you express solidarity with them, you indicate that you understand the scenario that Israel faces,” said one pro-Israel American foreign policy hand, who said he expects Romney to repeatedly and emotionally drive that point home. “If there is an area the White House has difficultly, it is that no one got the sense that the president cared. The approach that he took was to have these public differences with them. That lends itself to the perception — true or not — that you don’t give a shit.”
A White House official rejected the notion that Obama was less than whole-hearted in his support for Israel.
“The president, as he made clear in his call to Prime Minister Netanyahu [on Wednesday], that since the beginning of the administration our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable,” the official said. “Netanyahu said that at AIPAC. Last year we gave them $3b in foreign military assistance. We funded on top of that short-range missile defense, stood up for Israel in international forums. And conversations at senior level and intelligence levels are constant, particularly on defense issues.“
Obama’s trip to Israel four years ago was largely memorialized in a single line he uttered as he toured Sderot, the Israeli city near the Gaza border that was the target of rocket attacks — which administration officials point to as the reason Obama feels so strongly about the Iron Dome system.
“If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that,” Obama said. “And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”
“That emotional connection helped him beyond words, both in Israel and among pro-Israel Americans,” said one GOP foreign policy aide. “But nobody believes he feels that way anymore.”
But some in the American pro-Israel establishment want Romney to move beyond just the emotional, seeing an opportunity to discuss the ally’s strategic role in U.S. foreign policy.
“Obama’s trip was more about showing sympathy, [but increasingly isolated,] Israelis and supporters of Israel want to hear Romney making a strategic case as well,” said the pro-Israel foreign policy adviser. “There is a greater opportunity to do that now given the changes in the region.”
“The key audience for this trip is the voters back home and not the voters in Tel Aviv, Haaretz editor Aluf Benn told BuzzFeed. If you’re Romney, your best bet is to say nice things and have nice photo ops and come back without doing any damage — and that’s what it sounds like he’s planning.”
Romney's campaign said his few remarks on policy would hew to his 2007 speech at the Herzliya Conference, where deployed a tough tone on Iran — risk free red meat for Israelis and Americans alike.
"“It is time for the world to plainly speak three truths: One, Iran must be stopped. Two, Iran can be stopped. And three, Iran will be stopped," Romney said at the time.
Romney has challenged Obama on his economic sanctions in Iran, saying they haven’t gone far enough in preventing the regime from developing nuclear weapons. But aside from rhetoric, here too Romney has not specified what he would do differently than Obama and how he would accomplish it.
According to the campaign, Romney lands in the Israel on Saturday and leaves for Poland a week from Monday. In the less than 48 hours he will be on the ground he is scheduled to meet with a broad array of Israeli leaders, as well as Salam Fayyad, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority. Among the Israeli leaders: Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, and Shelly Yachimovich the leader of the Israeli opposition in the Knesset. Romney’s first meeting will be with U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro for a country briefing.
Romney’s expected public display of affection for Netanyahu also provides an opportunity for his hosts to earn some domestic political points. Netanyahu is looking to take advantage of the Romney praise to further his own domestic goals, as elections loom next year as the centrist Kadima party quit his coalition government, said Benn.
“Usually these candidates they try to have nice photo ops and nice messages without tying their hands after the election. The host wants more than that,” Benn said. “It’s an opportunity for Netanyahu to get the best, strongest support statement for Israel against Iran and for his domestic agenda which only build him more leverage.”