NEW YORK — Isn’t it nice to see Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama fighting it out over who is Israel’s greater friend and ally?
My advice: Sit back and enjoy it while it lasts, but don’t take it too seriously.
There was Romney at the Western Wall on Tisha B’Av, the most somber day on the Jewish calendar, outdueling Obama in the rhetoric department, first by calling Jerusalem “the capital of Israel,” which no U.S. president has done since the Palestinians began demanding it be the capital of their state. And the presumed Republican presidential candidate asserted that thwarting Iran’s nuclear aims would be his “highest national security policy,” coming just short of endorsing a military strike.
He seemed to take Israel’s position that Iran must be stopped before it has the capability to develop a nuclear bomb; the current administration has said Iran must be stopped before it has a nuclear bomb. Big difference because Jerusalem argues that once Iran has the ability, the game is lost.
Not to be outdone by his Republican rival, Obama recently chose to announce an additional $70 million in military aid for Israel’s short-term rocket defense system and signed a bill increasing cooperation with the Jewish state, underscoring America’s “unshakable commitment to Israel.”
And so it goes.
Romney has said during the campaign that the current administration has “thrown Israel under the bus,” and he has vowed to do “the opposite” of whatever Obama is doing regarding Washington’s policy on Iran.
(I don’t think the opposite of close strategic U.S.-Israel ties is a good thing, but I assume Romney meant he’d warm up the relationship in ways that Obama has cooled it down, especially on the Bibi front, which would certainly be a plus.)
Obama has been shuttling his top cabinet officers, and others, to Israel for discussions on Iran strategy, with time for some high-level hand-holding and assurances. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a rare trip a couple of weeks ago to meet with the leadership, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was recently in Jerusalem.
Granted, even Obama critics (at least the rational ones) note that strategic and military cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem has never been higher than during this administration. But these recent visits have been meant to highlight and make visible the strong U.S.-Israel connection.
For all the talk about the diminishing clout of the Jewish vote in presidential elections, both parties are pushing hard to please American Jewish voters and assure them that Israel’s security is a priority. That’s in part because Jews tend to go to the polls at a higher rate than any other ethnic group, and a significant percentage live in such key electoral states as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. But a major, if little publicized reason for all this attention is that Jews are major financial contributors to the parties — and that’s not even counting Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas-based businessman and philanthropist who plans to spend $100 million in the campaign to defeat Obama.
Another target for Romney on his trip to Israel was the Evangelical Christians, who outnumber Jews by at least 10 to 1 in this country and who are in many ways more fervent than we are about not ceding land in any Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.
Interesting to note, by the way, that Romney did not mention the Palestinians once in his Jerusalem speech, and Obama has had little to say about the prospects for renewed negotiations, which are at a standstill. That is not to say that things are calm in a region where the status quo is a sign of danger.
Rather, what this silence suggests is that neither man has a clue as to what to do to get the two sides together for meaningful talks, so they avoid the subject.
But there is no shortage of rhetoric from Obama and Romney when it comes to their commitment to keep Israel safe, so what are we to make of it all?
Not much — or at least not much in the way of changing voters’ minds.
Like most Americans, Jews seem pretty sure about which candidate they’ll be voting for in November. That would be Obama. At this point it’s highly unlikely he’ll get anywhere near the 78 percent of four years ago, but probably in the mid-60s, still high. The Republicans know that, but feel they have a shot at chipping away at the numbers enough to make a difference in those pivotal states, and Israel policy is a major selling point.
I feel like I am one of a dwindling number of undecideds in this race, trying to keep my options open as the campaign heats up.
I appreciate Romney’s open willingness to align himself with Israel, and I sense that he scores high in The Kishka Factor, feeling an emotional kinship to the Jewish state that may come from his religious faith, his politics or his personality — and maybe all three.
Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had it; Obama doesn’t. But then emotions only go so far. Neither Bush nor Clinton succeeded on the Mideast peace front. They just made some of us feel they cared more about Israel than Obama did in his failed efforts.
Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan was “Change.” One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in the last four years is his own approach to foreign policy. He came in convinced that every problem had a solution, and that dialogue was the answer.
But he has toughened up, from carrying stepped-up drone attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan to stepped-up economic sanctions on Iran to ridding the world of Osama bin Laden.
He stumbled badly from the outset on the Israel-Palestinian front, thinking a settlement freeze would lead to ending the stalemate. But he seems humbled by the blunder, more cautious now and moving closer to Israel’s position on dealing with Iran.
These assessments won’t change the minds of readers convinced that Obama is a disaster for Israel and that his second term will be worse. Nor will it change those who feel Romney is
ill-prepared for the White House and far more willing to say what he won’t do than what he will.
I have grown cynical about empty campaign promises. One pro-Israel staple, the pledge to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, for example, garners applause in some quarters but, based on past promises from presidential hopefuls, doesn’t mean a thing.
The question isn’t who loves Israel more but who will make America stronger and Israel more secure.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)