Relax, there’s no “real story.” Romney came to Israel for many reasons, but the one most important reason is as simple as this: He needed to go someplace, and Israel is as good a place as any.
Romney is here because that’s what presidential candidates do during the summer. They go to foreign countries so that voters will get a taste of them as the potential leader of the free world. They need to be seen boarding airplanes, landing in places to which most Americans have never traveled, meeting foreign leaders – preferably leaders whom American audiences are somewhat familiar with. And even better: Foreign leaders that more Americans like than dislike. Like this guy, Benjamin, 35% positive, 23% negative according to Friday’s Gallup analysis. The only group of voters who don’t much like Netanyahu is the group in which Romney will not find many voters – Democrats.
Israel is a good place to visit for two more reasons: It is popular with the voters. The candidate is not risking being associated with countries which most Americans do not like. And Israel is also relatively safe and comfortable, while having an image of an embattled country under constant siege. This means that for Romney coming here is both quite easy but still carries some of the benefits a candidate would have from visiting a combat zone. Unlike visiting (and botching for no apparent reason) the Olympics – which everyone knows is more about pleasure than delving into serious diplomatic matters – in Israel one can talk about the issues that matter in foreign affairs: Iran, Arab Spring, terrorism, American power.
You will hear a lot of nonsensical analysis about Romney and the Jewish vote in the coming days. But as I’ve explained and demonstrated time and again, the Jewish vote means very little in the Obama-Romney race. Romney did not come to Israel to collect Jewish voters (and if he did, he’s in big trouble). His share of the Israeli-American vote – that is, Americans who live here – will be high, as was John McCain’s share four years ago. His share of the American Jewish vote – that is, Jewish voters in places like Ohio and Florida – will be around 30%. Maybe a little less, possibly a little more. It will be lower in New York, where the votes don’t even matter, and a little higher in Florida, where they might matter but only if the race is a close as it was back in 2000. In most probable scenarios, the Jewish vote will determine nothing. It cannot be the reason for Romney’s Israel tour.
I was on the line last week for a conference call with Obama advisors, prior to Romney’s trip, and they kept complaining about Romney’s lack of specific foreign policy proposals. Romney – they rightly argued – is the uncommitted candidate. He seems to be constantly criticizing the president while not suggesting any alternative policies (and in many cases, he seems to support the current policies on the Obama administration). Case in point: Iran. Last week, Romney was interviewed by Haaretz (by the way, it’s a strange decision by the Romney team – why give the interview to a newspaper that is highly supportive of Obama, is read abroad mostly by left-wingers, and is not widely read in Israel?). In this interview, with columnist Ari Shavit, he had this to say:
Romney said that an American military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities “should not be ruled out” if other preventive measures fail. He added: “I am personally committed to take every step necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability.”
So Romney doesn’t “rule out” a military strike. That’s Obama’s position. He is committed to taking steps. That’s Obama’s position. He also said that “Prime Minister Netanyahu always has to do what he feels is in the best interests of his own nation”. That’s not quite a public commitment to support an Israeli strike on Iran. Romney’s advisor, Dan Senor, made some headlines by supposedly committing the candidate to backing an Israeli strike. But if one reads what Senor really said – not the headlines written by newspaper editors – it doesn’t seem as impressive: If Netanyahu decides to act, namely attack, Romney would “respect that decision” (but yes, this one we didn’t hear from the Obama people – maybe because they are the ones that will have to deal with the consequences?).
The Obama team complained that if Romney believes it is time to scrap diplomacy on Iran he should say so. Surely demanding him to say such thing is a trap that he would not walk into – but one should acknowledge the fact that what Israel is publicly getting from Romney is a lot of feel-good generalities and very few specifics.
More Israelis would prefer Romney over Obama as the next US president. We see it in polls, and can sense it by talking to people. Israelis are more used to Obama than they were in the past, and are less anxious about him. But still, most believe that an Obama second term would be easy for the Israeli government. And still, many Israelis don’t think Obama is a “friendly” president, no matter how many ceremonies they see in which he gives even more money to bolster Israel’s security. In 2007, 73% of Israelis ranked Bush as “friendly” to Israel; in 2012, 51% of Israelis ranked Obama as “friendly” or “very friendly”. Not terrible – but not great. And as one can imagine, right-wing Israelis have more dislike for Obama, while left-wing Israelis would like him reelected (and then they would like him to pick another round of fights with the Netanyahu government).