JERUSALEM — After a verbal stumble in London that offended his British hosts, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney heads to Israel on Saturday, seeking to convince American voters that he is more in tune than President Obama with Israel’s concerns and needs.
Although he can expect a warm reception from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose differences with Obama have been highly publicized, Romney will have to choose his public words here carefully, given the tricky terrain that is Middle Eastern politics.
In an interview published Friday on the front page of Israel’s Haaretz daily, the candidate suggested that, if elected, he would take care to maintain a unified front with Israel.
“I believe that with regards to our allies, we are always wiser to lock arms and to stand as one for the world to see,” he said. “There will be, of course, times of disagreement and disparity in our respective interests — but those we are best in keeping to ourselves.”
Romney’s remark touched on a widespread perception here that the Obama administration has distanced itself, in policy terms, from its key ally in the Middle East. Romney’s apparent goal is to reassure voters back home — particularly American Jews and pro-Israeli evangelical Christian conservatives who have been wary of backing him — that he will be different.
As well as meeting with Israeli leaders and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Romney plans to hold a fundraiser, the first such event held in Israel for a candidate in a U.S. presidential campaign.
At $50,000 a couple, the breakfast event at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel is expected to include active American Jewish supporters, some of whom live part time in Israel, as well as local backers.
Obama received only about a quarter of the votes cast by Americans living in Israel in 2008, according to a post-election survey. That reflected the orientation of many recent immigrants from the United States, who tend to be religiously observant and politically conservative. To those voters, the first-term record of Obama — who visited Israel as a candidate but not while in office — confirmed their early suspicions.
“People here feel that [Obama] has not had the level of warmth toward Israel that most presidents have had,” said Abe Katsman, a Jerusalem attorney who serves as counsel to Republicans Abroad Israel.
The complaints of Romney backers here center on positions that have put Washington at odds with Netanyahu: an insistence early in Obama’s term on a freeze on Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; a statement that a peace agreement with the Palestinians should be based on Israel’s 1967 boundaries, with “mutually agreed” land swaps; and an approach to Iran that is seen as not tough enough, engaging in protracted diplomacy while warning Israel against a unilateral military strike.
“This idea of putting daylight between the U.S. government and Israel — who does that to an ally?” Katsman said. “And why make the disagreement public?”
Netanyahu reacted icily last year to Obama’s call for negotiations with the Palestinians based on the 1967 lines, taking Obama to task before television cameras in a meeting at the Oval Office. Administration officials, however, say Obama’s positions on settlements and future borders have been consistent with long-standing U.S. policy.
Obama has repeatedly stressed Washington’s “unshakable” commitment to Israel’s security, which has been bolstered by generous defense assistance — including aid for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, which has successfully intercepted rockets fired at Israeli cities from the Gaza Strip.
At the White House on Friday, Obama, in an apparent parry to Romney’s visit, signed the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act and announced an additional $70 million in Iron Dome funding.
In the Haaretz interview, given in London, Romney hinted at differences with Obama even as he said he would not criticize U.S. policies while abroad. Any comment on the issue of Israeli settlements, he said, “would lead me into waters of showing a distance between me and the president.”
On the issue of a Palestinian state, he asserted that the question “is not whether the people of the region believe that there should be a Palestinian state. The question is if they believe there should be an Israeli state, a Jewish state.”
Netanyahu has long maintained that Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state must be part of any peace accord.
On Iran, Romney supporters assert that their candidate is committed to vigorous action to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
But Romney’s statement to Haaretz — that if all other measures fail, a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities “should not be ruled out” and that he is committed “to take every step necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability” — echoed similar statements by Obama.
In fact, Romney’s stance on Israel is not likely to differ dramatically from the administration’s, said Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“On some very substantive issues, there is very deep cooperation with the Obama administration, and there are Israelis who will tell you that there has never been that kind of cooperation before,” Avineri said.“If Romney will try to distance himself, it will be on Iran and possibly on the settlements, but it will mainly be about atmospherics, just as atmospherics is a major issue between Netanyahu and Obama.”
Hillel Schenker, vice chair of Democrats Abroad-Israel , agreed. “I haven’t seen any indication of readiness to take any positions which are different from what have been essentially bipartisan Republican and Democratic positions,” he said. “Historically, there has never been a Republican president ready to accept the legitimacy of the settlements, and on Iran he’s saying the same thing Obama is saying. I see a lot of posturing.”
Romney is “trying to do something that is simply not doable,” Schenker said, noting that for decades American Jews have voted heavily for Democratic presidential candidates. “This will not make the difference that he’s looking for.”
Despite his cool relationship with Obama, Netanyahu has avoided taking sides ahead of Romney’s visit, refusing in recent interviews on two U.S. television networks to be drawn into evaluating the Republican candidate.
“I will receive Mitt Romney with the same openness that I received another presidential candidate, then-Senator Barack Obama, when he came almost four years ago, almost the same time in the campaign, to Israel,” Netanyahu told “Fox News on Sunday” this week. “We — Israel has — enjoys bipartisan support, both Democrats and Republicans, and we extend bipartisan hospitality to both Democrats and Republicans.”