FLORIDA - Spending a week in Florida on the eve of a presidential election has become a habit, and a habit I cherish. Once again meeting the old ladies who suddenly become interested in politics, attending the synagogues to which candidates flock in droves to speak, watching the hurried traveling convoys of dignitaries and emissaries and surrogates, making a last-minute pitch, enjoying the hospitable weather.
As I left Israel to come here, the Knesset was about to officially disperse itself, during its opening winter session. Soon enough Israel is going to have its own round of elections (you can see what the polls in Israel are saying here) and the speeches made by Prime Minister Netanyahu and opposition leader, Shaul Mofaz, were no more than election speeches.
Mofaz made a combative speech, as befitting the head of a party (Kadima) on the verge of total collapse, focusing his attention for long minutes on what he claimed is Netanyahu’s irresponsible handling of Israel’s relations with the U.S. Mofaz, without mincing words, blamed Netanyahu for intervening in America’s election – an accusation I find a little overstated. One thing can’t be denied though: Netanyahu is probably the foreign leader mentioned more in this election season than any other foreign leader. He was brought up for discussion in the VP debate last week, and I’ll be surprised not to hear his name mentioned during the second presidential debate tonight – and in next week’s Florida foreign policy debate.
The American public views Netanyahu in a positive light, according to a Gallup survey taken in the summer. Israel is also viewed positively by the American public, even more so than Netanyahu. Thus, as the two candidates play the Israel card in their public appearances, they play both offense and defense in somewhat tricky ways.
Consider this: For Romney, invoking Netanyahu’s name is a way of putting Obama in a tough spot. Naturally, Obama doesn’t want to acknowledge that his relations with Netanyahu are awfully bad, that he can barely stand his presence and can hardly stomach the need to maintain contact with him. Such admission would make matters even worse policy wise; it might not fly with those of the voters who tell pollsters that they see Netanyahu positively; and might even seem problematic to those voters who do not like Netanyahu but understand that having a contentious relationship with him does not serve any purpose.
Thus, when Romney says “Netanyahu”, the only possible and credible response he can get from Obama is “Israel”. Obama doesn’t speak much about the prime minister – doing so would require that he, a. admit what he doesn’t want to admit, or b. not tell the truth on a matter about which it is obvious enough to voters that he isn’t telling the truth. On the other hand, speaking about “Israel” is good for Obama. Israel, as I mentioned above, is more popular than Netanyahu. Israel is what pro-Israel voters are concerned with. Israel is the way for Obama to circumvent “Netanyahu” or “the government of Israel”. The president has made it a habit to constantly express his support for the country while constantly, if more subtly, expressing his dislike of its democratically elected leadership.
So Obama is using Israel as a shield against attacks related to Israel’s leadership. But he is also attempting to use Israel as a tool of offense. Because unlike him, Romney hasn’t yet done anything tangible for Israel other than make it harder for the country to remain a bipartisan cause – while Obama has a proven record of support that can’t be refuted. Romney can scream about strategic blunders and about “throwing Israel under the bus” and about, well, the Obama snub of Netanyahu in New York last month. But he can’t take away from Obama all the goodies that the president has to show to the voters: financial aid, intelligence-sharing, military assistance, defending Israel at the UN.
Bottom line: It is essential for Romney to equate “Netanyahu” and “Israel", and make them seem as one. It is paramount for Obama to dissociate “Israel” from “Netanyahu”. This is the reverse play of American intervention in Israeli politics: Romney’s message is the one Netanyahu would embrace on the eve of election – I am Israel, while Obama’s message is the one that an Israeli opposition would embrace – “Israel” can do without a “Netanyahu”.