President Barack Obama defended his decision not to visit Israel since becoming president, saying he wanted to go when “we are actually moving something forward.”
In an interview Thursday on NBC, the president was asked why he had not chosen to visit Israel during his first term. “The truth of the matter is is that there are a number of countries I didn’t visit. I visited Israel just a couple of months before I was president,” he said. Candidate Obama came to Israel in late July 2008; the presidential elections were held on November 4.
Obama went on, “And, you know, given how important, I think, the situation in the Middle East is and our partnership with Israel, which is stronger than it has ever been, when I go to Israel, I want to make sure that we are actually moving something forward.”
Obama did not elaborate on what he meant by “moving something forward,” but he may have been referring to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — which have been deadlocked during his presidency — or other Israeli-regional diplomacy.
Obama was asked in this week’s foreign policy debate by challenger Mitt Romney why he had undertaken an “apology tour” of the region early in his presidency, visiting Arab and Muslim states, but choosing to “skip” Israel. The president responded by sniping that Romney used his visit to Israel this July to hold a fundraising event.
Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, did not visit Israel as president until his second term. Romney has pledged that, if elected, he would visit Israel on his first foreign trip as president.
The issue of the presidential candidates’ support for Israel has been much discussed in recent days. Israel was mentioned dozens of times in the foreign policy debate, with each man seeming to seek to outdo the other in stressing their support. The Romney campaign may perceive Obama to be relatively weak among pro-Israel voters, which might prove an issue in certain key swing states including Florida. Obama has been publicly at odds with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the specifics of grappling with Iran’s nuclear drive.
During the debate, Obama stressed his Israel credentials by highlighting his trip to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial during his 2008 trip, and his visit then to the rocket-battered town of Sderot on the Gaza border — implying that Romney had not made similar visits.
Romney opted not to respond. In fact, however, Romney has made four visits to Israel over the years. He toured Yad Vashem in 2007, and went to Sderot and surrounding areas during his 2011 trip.