Days after telling Israelis that they deserve better treatment than they have had from the United States during Barack Obama’s presidency, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrived in Israel on Saturday night for talks Sunday with Israeli leaders, a meeting with the Palestinian prime minister, and a fundraiser.
Romney was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu twice on Sunday, once in the morning in the Prime Minister’s Office and again in the evening, when Netanyahu will host the Republican presidential nominee for dinner at his residence.
Just as candidate Obama did four years ago, challenger Romney is visiting Israel in good part to try to maximize support for his presidential campaign among American Jewish supporters. Sensitive bilateral issues will also be on the agenda, however, notably the shared US-Israel concern about how to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive.
Netanyahu, publicly aiming to stay out of partisan American politics, told Fox TV last week that he would receive 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.” Although Netanyahu has known Romney for years — they both studied at MIT in Boston — and has had a sometimes strained relationship with Obama, he took care to give no hint of a preference in the interview, adding: “We extend bipartisan hospitality to both Democrats and Republicans.”
Obama was a relatively unknown quantity to Israel at the time of his 2008 visit, but his Democratic Party has traditionally garnered the vast majority of US Jewish votes. Romney is a more familiar figure, but his Republican Party has found it difficult to change those US Jewish voting habits. Romney has promised that, if elected, he would visit Israel as his first overseas destination. Obama has not visited Israel as president.
A Gallup poll released Friday showed that American Jews support Obama over Romney by a margin of 68 to 25 percent. That’s a decline compared to the 78% support Obama won, according to exit polls, in the elections.
Romney, who will hold talks with President Shimon Peres, Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, will be aiming to accelerate that slide. Obama, who on Friday announced that he was releasing an additional $70 million in military aid for Israel, will be determined to reverse it.
Romney’s campaign suggested at the weekend that the announcement of extra funding was deliberately timed to try to overshadow the challenger’s Israel trip. A White House spokesman said he could “understand the coincidence” but that US security help for Israel was something that went on “every day.”
Romney’s spokeswoman also attacked the “evasiveness from the White House on whether President Obama recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which raised doubt about the president’s commitment to our closest ally in the region.” This was a reference to the White House spokesman’s refusal last week, under questioning from reporters, to name Jerusalem — or any other city — as Israel’s capital.
Romney made his remarks about Israel deserving better treatment in an interview with the Israel Hayom newspaper, after a speech to former veterans at a conference in Reno, Nevada, last Tuesday.
In the same interview, Romney reiterated his “commitment to use any means possible to prevent Iran from going nuclear.” He offered strong support for Israel in the face of Iranian threats, promising to “close ranks with those who share our worldview” regarding the dangerous nature of the regime in Tehran.
Israel Hayom is owned by American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has been among the Romney campaign’s biggest donors, pumping tens of millions of dollars into the campaign. Adelson was reportedly set to attend Romney’s late Sunday fundraiser.
Romney canceled a planned meeting Sunday with Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich. Labor MK Isaac Herzog said he feared Romney had been “misled” by Netanyahu’s office, which didn’t want him to see the alternative Israeli leaderships.
Romney, who also spoke to Haaretz ahead of his trip, called Israel’s 1967 lines “indefensible” and said he would not call on Israel to return to them as part of negotiations with the Palestinians.
“The president has also spoken of returning to 1967 borders – they are indefensible. And acting as a negotiator and usurping the primary role played by Israel in negotiating for its own future is not the right course for America to take,” Romney said.
Obama has come under fire from some pro-Israel groups, especially on the right, after calling for a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, with agreed-upon land swaps. Romney, by contrast, is being urged by the left-wing J Street lobby to make specific his support for a two-state solution.
Much of Romney’s campaign against Obama’s foreign policy has focused on Israel, and what he sees as the White House’s abandonment of Jerusalem. During the Reno speech, Romney castigated Obama for “lecturing Israel’s leaders.”
Romney last visited Israel in January of 2011, before he had formally declared his candidacy, and was hosted by Netanyahu at his Jerusalem residence. He also visited Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan on that trip.
Netanyahu issued a statement after their meeting saying the two men discussed security issues, including the threat posed by Iran.
Romney has been highly critical of Obama’s handling of the Iranian nuclear drive. Notably, in a March 5 article in the Washington Post, Romney described Obama as America’s “most feckless president since (Jimmy) Carter,” warned that with Obama in the White House Iran was on course to acquiring nuclear weapons, and vowed that, if elected, he would take “every measure necessary” to “check the evil regime of the ayatollahs.”
Although there is extensive coordination between Israel and the US on Iran, there is widely reported friction too, with Washington said to be anxious to dissuade Jerusalem from taking premature military action against Iran. Mofaz, who until days ago was Netanyahu’s deputy before taking his Kadima party into the opposition, reiterated his conviction on Saturday that premature Israeli military intervention could be disastrous and lead to war.
During the Republican presidential primary, Romney accused Obama of throwing Israel, in his words, “under the bus.” Romney has also said that his policy toward the Jewish state would be the opposite of Obama’s.
(AP contributed to this report)