Mitt Romney has promised “not an inch of difference" between his administration and Israel, if elected president. In speeches and debates over the past year, he has said he would neither pressure Israel on settlement construction in the West Bank nor stand in the way of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations.
But as the Republican candidate touches down in the region this weekend, some Israelis are expressing doubt about his ability or even intention to live up to those promises, describing them mainly as an attempt to lure voters away from President Barack Obama and appeal to evangelicals, whose support Romney has had some difficultly rallying.
Palestinians are also taking his comments with a grain of salt, with some saying that Romney could end up advancing their interests better than President Barack Obama.
“I don’t think anyone is taking these things very seriously,” said Itamar Rabinovich, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington in the 1990s. “Compare Romney in the primaries to Romney in the general election. He’s a different man. If he’s elected, I think we’ll see another shift,” he said.
Romney meets Sunday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. It’s his fourth visit to Israel in the past several years and certainly his most important. The trip is part of Romney’s first foreign tour as the likely Republican candidate, and comes on the heels of his trip to England, which by many accounts, could have gone more smoothly.
During the primaries, nearly all the major Republican candidates paid visits to Israel, in what some observers had come to refer to as the GOP Hajj. Obama made a similar trip in the summer before his election in 2008, but he has not visited Israel as president, a fact that Romney frequently points out by way of questioning his support for Israel.
Netanyahu, who has known Romney since the two were colleagues at the Boston Consulting Group] in the 1970s, is widely believed to favor a Republican victory in November. But he said the visit is not an indication that Israel is taking sides in the election.
"Israel … enjoys bipartisan support, both Democrats and Republicans, and we extend bipartisan hospitality to both Democrats and Republicans,” he told Fox News before Romney landed.
Though the two men will likely discuss Iran and other foreign policy issues, meetings between American presidential candidates and foreign leaders don’t usually include substantive details, nor are they an accurate predictor of the rapport they will have as leaders. Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama in 2008 went smoothly but their relationship since then has been fraught.
Obama and Netanyahu have clashed repeatedly over Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where Palestinians form a large majority and hope to establish their state. They’ve also had disagreements over the best way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, with Israel threatening air strikes.
Romney has described that kind of tension with an ally like Israel as unacceptable. In a speech on the eve of his foreign trip, he said: “President Obama is fond of lecturing Israel’s leaders. He has undermined their position, which was tough enough as it was. And even at the United Nations, to the enthusiastic applause of Israel’s enemies, he spoke as if our closest ally in the Middle East was the problem.”
But Rabinovich said that Romney as president would have to take into account a broader set of factors and interests and would likely strike positions on settlements and on Iran that are very close to Obama’s.
He recounted a story about former U.S. President Gerald Ford, who as a member of Congress, lobbied to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a would-be sign that the United States recognizes Israel’s annexation of the eastern half of the city. When he became president and Israelis reminded him of the promise he made on Capitol Hill, Ford said the view was different from the White House.
Romney is also scheduled to hold talks with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, though not with President Mahmoud Abbas.
Many Palestinians have voiced outrage at the positions staked out by Republican presidential candidate regarding Israel—including a remark earlier this year by Newt Gingrich, who called Palestinian an “invented” people.
But Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian political figure, said it would be wrong to infer from the election rhetoric how a candidate would deal with Israel and the Palestinians as president. In fact, she said Republicans have occasionally shown themselves more willing to lean on Israel than Democrats.
“It takes someone who the Israelis know is in their camp to be critical of Israel,” Ashrawi told the Daily Beast. “Those who have to prove all the time that they have Israel’s back outdo others in trying to prove their loyalties.”
She cited George W. Bush as an example, referring to his distinction as the first U.S. president to explicitly endorse the formation of an independent Palestinian state. Ashrawi said Obama had mostly strengthened the U.S. relationship with Israel, despite tensions with Netanyahu.
“In our book, Obama has done more for Israel than any other president,” she said.