To hear Republican party presidential candidate Mitt Romney tell it, U.S. President Barack Obama, the Democratic party incumbent, has royally messed up in the Middle East, having distanced himself from Israel, having failed to slow Iran’s nuclear program and having responded incoherently to the Arab Spring rebellions in the Arab world.
With the Nov. 6 election looming on the horizon, Romney has delivered a scathing critique of Obama’s Mideast policy, having attempted to portray him as a weak, ineffective leader who lacks a clear and vigorous Mideast strategy.
At a time when the anemic state of the American economy is by far the chief concern of voters, the Middle East is not exactly a hot-button topic. But because Jews are a key electoral demographic in such swing states as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio and play an important role in fund-raising, the Mideast is an issue the candidates can ignore only at their peril. Obama and particularly Romney have thus harped on the Mideast to curry favour with Jews and evangelical Christians, many of whom are pro-Israel.
Attack ads by pro-Republican lobbying groups, such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, have questioned Obama’s commitment to Israel, decrying his failure to visit the Jewish state since assuming his position in 2009. In last week’s third debate, Romney mentioned this, too. “You skipped Israel, but you went to other nations,” he said in a reference to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The truth of the matter is that most U.S. presidents since Harry Truman, including pro-Israel figures such as Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, have not even visited Israel, while George W. Bush waited until his second term to go there.
Democrats have responded furiously to misleading Republican ads, accusing Republicans of cynically turning Israel into a partisan wedge issue by “replacing reality with distortion and fantasy,” as Sen. Frank Lautenberg (New Jersey) recently exclaimed.
Romney, who has visited Israel four times, most recently in July on a photo-op and fundraising trip, has tried to create the impression that the Obama administration has mishandled the Arab Spring, has not been sufficiently tough with Iran and has put “daylight” between the United States and Israel, which enjoys bipartisan support in Congress.
Speaking in nebulous generalities, Romney claims that Obama has squandered opportunities to lead Arabs “from oppression to freedom.” Romney, however, has not spelled out what he would have done differently as pro-American regimes in Egypt and Tunisia fell by the wayside, nor has he explained how his policy on the current uprising in Syria would be any different.
Calling Obama’s stance on Iran his worst foreign policy failure, Romney claims he allowed the mullahs to expand Iran’s nuclear program. Romney says he would impose “crippling sanctions” on Tehran and ensure it does not gain even the capability of producing nuclear weapons, but he has stopped short of threatening military action.
Claiming the Obama administration’s support of Israel is weak-kneed, Romney says Obama has thrown it “under the bus,” has vowed to be a better friend than Obama and promised to visit Israel on his first trip abroad as president.
Like Obama, Romney supports a two-state solution to resolve Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, yet he has said that the Palestinians “have no interest in peace” and that the problem will probably remain unresolved.
Due to Israel’s ill-conceived settlement policy in the West Bank, as well as Obama’s abortive attempt to convince Israel to impose a permanent freeze on the construction of settlements there, Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have generally had chilly relations. But in all other respects, the Obama administration has been exceedingly supportive of Israel, especially in vital security matters.
Obama, who visited Israel on the eve of the 2008 U.S. presidential election, has provided financial and technical assistance to Israel for the development of its short-range Iron Dome and long-range Arrow missile defence systems. And he has permitted Israel to buy the most advanced U.S. fighter jet, the F-35.
In addition, the United States gives Israel more than $3 billion in annual aid.
“I have made it a top priority for my administration to deepen co-operation with Israel across the whole spectrum of security issues, – intelligence, military, technology,” Obama has said. “Our commitment to Israel’s security must never waver.” Or, as he put it last week, “Our bond with Israel [is] unbreakable.”
Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, has said, “We have an extremely close relationship with Israel, which is appropriate, given our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.”
This is not mere rhetoric. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has declared that Obama has been “an extremely strong” supporter of Israel with regard to its security: “I can hardly remember a better period of American support and backing… than what we have right now.”
On Iran, the United States and Israel have co-operated closely, sharing intelligence, trying to disable its spinning centrifuges through cyber warfare (Operation Olympic Games) and working on missile defences to counteract Iran’s offensive capabilities.
Washington, in co-operation with the United Nations and the European Union, has slapped debilitating economic sanctions on Iran. Obama has warned Iran that “all options are on the table,” that containment is not the sum of U.S. policy and that Iran will not be permitted to acquire a nuclear arsenal, period. Since Obama, like Romney, prefers to resolve this problem through diplomatic means, he has urged Israel to refrain from launching a pre-emptive attack on Iran.
On the political front, the Obama administration has fought efforts to delegitimize Israel and condemned attempts to boycott Israel. The United States derailed a campaign by the Palestinian Authority to achieve full membership in the UN, and vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank, even though it considers them illegal and illegitimate. Obama, too, has pressured Egypt’s new president to abide by its peace treaty with Israel.
Despite the candidates’ proclivity to pander to Israel, American Jews will most likely judge them on the basis of domestic polices. “Our polls shows that you cannot appeal to the voters through the single issue of Israel,” says Robert Jones the chief executive officer of the Public Religion Research Institute.
Another point worth considering is that American Jews tend to be Democrats. A survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee about a month ago indicated that 65 per cent of Jews plan to vote for Obama, compared to 24 per cent for Romney. Ten per cent remain undecided.
Although Romney might sometimes sound more pro-Israel in rhetorical terms than his opponent, most Jewish voters know that Israel has a true friend in Obama. On Nov. 6, a significant majority of American Jews will cast their ballots for the Democrats, Israel notwithstanding.