“Over the past four years president Obama has traveled all over the world. He traveled all over the Middle East. But he hasn’t found time to visit our ally and friend, Israel. …As the dangers to Israel mount, where’s Obama? Anywhere but Israel.”
— Voiceover in television ad by the Emergency Committee for Israel
“As President, Barack Obama has never visited Israel and refuses to recognize Jerusalem as its capital.”
--voiceover in new Mitt Romney television campaign ad titled “Cherished Relationship”
As Woody Allen once put it, “80 percent of success is showing up.”
A pro-Israel group last week began running ads knocking President Obama for failing to visit Israel. The ad is filled with the sounds of Chinese gongs and Arabian sounds, and postcard-like images showing Obama in his world travels, often arm-in-arm with Arab leaders.
Then, on Sunday, the Romney campaign echoed this charge with its own ad also calling attention to Obama not visiting Israel as president.
Obama visited Israel in 2008, as a presidential candidate, but thus far has not visited the Jewish state during his presidential term. So we wondered how Obama’s record compares to other presidents — and whether that matters.
The State Department historian’s office maintains a list of presidential foreign travels, so we can quickly see which presidents have visited Israel — and when. Here’s the list since Israel’s founding:
Harry Truman: no visit
Dwight Eisenhower: no visit
John Kennedy: no visit
Lyndon Johnson: no visit
Richard Nixon: sixth year of presidency
Gerald Ford: no visit
Jimmy Carter: third year of presidency
Ronald Reagan: no visit
George H.W. Bush: no visit
Bill Clinton: 4 visits—in the second, third, fourth and sixth years of his presidency
George W. Bush: 2 visits—in the eighth year of his presidency
According to this list, only four of the last 11 presidents visited Israel during their presidency, and two — Nixon and George W. Bush — waited until their second term to make their first trip. In both cases, they visited in the last year of their presidencies (Nixon resigned because of the Watergate affair shortly after his trip.)
Only Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, then, visited Israel in their first term. And of the last four presidents, two never visited Israel, one visited in his second term and one visited in his first term.
Thus Obama’s failure to travel to Israel thus far is not unusual at all.
The Emergency Committee ad also suggests that Obama has visited Arab countries rather than Israel. But the State Department records also demonstrate that every president who traveled to Israel had previously visited Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The ad also incorrectly says Obama has “traveled all over the Middle East.” Obama visited just Turkey and Iraq in April 2009, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia in June 2009. The stops in Iraq and Saudi Arabia were barely a few hours long — and Obama has not traveled at all to Middle East in the past three years. (Many of the images in the ad of Obama with Arab leaders are from international confabs held outside the Middle East.)
Indeed, George W. Bush, Clinton and George H.W. Bush were much more well traveled in the Middle East than Obama has been so far in his presidency.
So what’s going on here? Why would Obama be knocked for a travel record not much different than other presidents?
Part of it is Obama’s trip to Egypt, in which he gave a speech titled “A New Beginning,” intending to reach out to the Muslim world. Many Israelis objected to the way he discussed Jewish settlements in the West Bank — and how he appeared to link the creation of Israel to the Holocaust, which goes against the Zionist narrative that Jews have always been a part of the Middle East.
And part of it is the perception that Obama had tried to publicly distance himself from Israel in an effort to pressure its leaders to reach a peace deal. (As our colleague Scott Wilson documented, the tactic did not work out well.)
Other presidents may have had sharp disputes with Israeli leaders, but they still managed to make clear they had an emotional attachment to Israel. George H.W. Bush, for instance, spoke of the “anguish” over tensions with Israel.
“Obama is more like Jimmy Carter minus the biblical interest or attachment, or like Bush 41 minus a strategy,” wrote veteran peace negotiator Aaron David Miller in Foreign Policy last month. “My sense is that, if he could get away with it, the president would like to see a U.S.-Israeli relationship that is not just less exclusive, but somewhat less special as well.”
In other words, a presidential visit by Obama might have been necessary, if only to show he cared.
“Please pay careful attention to the ad. It doesn’t criticize Obama simply for not visiting in his first term. It doesn’t make any comparison to visits by other presidents,” said Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee. “It criticizes him for traveling to the Middle East repeatedly but intentionally skipping Israel as part of his ‘daylight’ policy of distancing the U.S. from Israel while pursuing friendly relations with Muslim states. I think the ad is pretty clear on this. We even cited the Scott Wilson piece in the Washington Post, which delves into this in detail.”
Meanwhile, the Romney ad also knocks Obama for not recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “as president.” As we noted last week, Obama, just like Romney, said Jerusalem was Israel’s capital during a 2008 trip there as a presidential candidate. But Obama, following the path set by previous presidents, has held off official recognition by the U.S. government pending the outcome of peace talks. Romney has never pledged that he would direct the State Department to immediately recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, so thus far this is a hollow talking point.
The Pinocchio Test
Pollak is correct that the Emergency Committee ad does not directly say that Obama’s travel record was unusual for a president, but it certainly suggests that. While there may have been good political reasons for Obama to make a trip to Jerusalem, the basic frame of the ad is misleading, especially the claim that he’s traveled all through the Middle East at the expense of a visit to Israel.
The Romney ad also misleadingly suggests Obama’s failure to visit Israel is unusual since it asks, “Who shares your values?”
Obama may have failed the Woody Allen test, but his travel record to Israel is par for the course for American presidents.
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