There has been much spin surrounding Mitt Romney’s recent visit to Israel - but how much of it is true?
Netanyahu endorsed Mitt Romney.
No, he didn’t.
We all assume, and for good reason, that the prime minister of Israel would probably want Mitt Romney to get elected, instead of having to deal with a free-of-political-considerations second-term President Barack Obama. We assume this is what Netanyahu wants — hence, we read much too much into what he says and the way he acts standing next to Romney. True, Netanyahu was a gracious host to Romney, but would anyone expect him to not be a gracious host to an American presidential candidate? True, Netanyahu made remarks implicitly critical of the Obama administration, but he was merely repeating his well-known positions. Bottom line: No matter what Netanyahu says or does, the press will keep reading hidden meanings into it. He was careful not to publicly endorse Romney. It is we, the viewers, looking at him with our biased interpretation and reading an endorsement into it.
Romney made a huge gaffe.
Let’s begin by looking at what Romney said about Israel and the Palestinians. Speaking to a group of donors, and wanting to praise Israel’s successes, Romney pointed to the “dramatically stark difference in economic vitality” between Israel and the territory under Palestinian Authority rule. He then explained the difference thus: “Culture makes all the difference.” Is this a gaffe? A gaffe is defined as “a clumsy social error. A blatant mistake of misjudgment.” Romney’s words were impolite, uncalled for, borderline racist. If he becomes president, it will complicate his ability to reach Palestinian readers. But was it a clumsy social error? Is it a social error among Romney’s circle of supporters to say such things? I’m not sure it is. Was it a “blatant mistake”? That also depends on one’s perspective: Some would say Palestinians are lagging behind because of the occupation, some would argue it is indeed the difference between the cultures that better explains the differences in success.
But we have to be more precise about the meaning of a gaffe in the political context in which Romney was speaking. The political gaffe is the gaffe that might hurt the candidate, that might give his rivals more ammunition for attacks against him. I’d be surprised if Romney’s blatant assessment of Palestinian culture is going to hurt him politically. Americans don’t hold Palestinian culture in high regard and might agree with Romney. Americans tilting toward voting for Romney (namely, Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents) probably agree in even higher numbers with such a position. So, again, was this a gaffe? The Washington foreign policy punditry is right to cry foul and criticize Romney for making this comment. But politically speaking, I don’t think this one is really a “gaffe.” In other words, I don’t think we are likely to see an Obama ad using this comment as a way to convince voters that Romney can’t be trusted.
Romney is more ready than Obama to stop Iran.
Maybe in his heart he is, but publicly Romney gave us no reason to suspect that his policies vis-à-vis Iran will be any different than those of Obama. As I previously demonstrated, everything Romney says about Iran is mere repetition and repackaging of the current American position. That isn’t as surprising as some people might think, because, in fact, the current stated American position on Israel is very similar to Israel’s position. Both countries say that an Iranian regime with nuclear weapons is unacceptable; that containment is not a viable option with Iran; that stopping Iran by diplomatic means is preferable to using the military option; and that the military option should remain on the table. The Obama administration and the Netanyahu government are not in great dispute on the principles — they have differences that can be divided into three categories:
1. Do sanctions work? Netanyahu says no, Obama says there’s still time for them to work.
2. Do we have time? Netanyahu doesn’t have much time left to act, or so he believes, or so he says he believes; Obama still has plenty of time (because the U.S. military has better ways to achieve success at a later stage).
3. Do we have trust? Obama doesn’t trust Netanyahu to do what he believes is the reasonable thing (that is, not to attack); Netanyahu doesn’t trust Obama to do what it takes to stop Iran.
On the sanctions question: Romney didn’t indicate his position is closer to that of Netanyahu. He didn’t advocate, and is unlikely to advocate, abandoning the diplomatic course and launching an American attack. That he will “respect” an Israeli decision to do what is in Israel’s “best interest” is nice, but it doesn’t say much. Is he going to give Israel the green light and the support, no questions asked, or is he going to respect Israel’s decision as long as it doesn’t cost America anything?
On the timing front: This is pretty much the same as the sanctions question. Romney understands Israel’s timetable, and he also understands America’s more relaxed timetable. Would he commit the United States to attacking Iran at a later stage, by way of convincing Israel to give sanctions more time? He didn’t say any such thing. So his position is not clear.
This leaves the trust question as the only one to which one can attribute real difference. But this isn’t a difference between Obama and Romney; it is a difference in the way some senior Israelis are reading the candidates. It is the difference between hearing Obama saying that a nuclearized Iran is unacceptable — and not believing he really means it — and hearing Romney saying the exact same words — and believing him.
Romney is much better on Jerusalem.
Is he really? In 2008, Obama was much more blatant about the future of Jerusalem than Romney was earlier this week. Here’s what Obama said (and later had to clarify): “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” Here’s what Romney said: “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.” Obama later changed his position, and there’s good reason to suspect that Romney’s position is also more nuanced than the position attributed to him by both supporters and opponents. For one, Romney didn’t preclude the possibility that Jerusalem can serve as the capital of both Israel and Palestine (the solution proposed in the so-called Clinton parameters). And look at his interview with Wolf Blitzer — does he really says he is going to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? In reading his words carefully one is reminded that of all Republican candidates in 2012, Romney was the only non-committed candidate when it came to moving the embassy. Gingrich, Santorum, Bachman and Perry pledged to do it, but Romney didn’t — not during the primaries, not this week. He committed himself to discussing it, coordinating it, but with no timetable or time frame. Eventually, the embassy will have to be moved to Jerusalem. Date: unclear.
Like with Iran, the difference between Obama and Romney on Jerusalem is similar to the difference on Iran — in the eye of the beholder.