The Bullpen

Romney and Obama: Two peas in a pod on Israel and Iran?

The Republican is eager to show Jewish voters that he'd be tougher on Iran than the Democratic president. But that may be an awfully tough sell

Paul Brandus

Although only two percent of Americans are Jewish, Jews usually carry far more weight on election day — as much as four percent of the electorate — because they tend to register and vote in greater proportions than other minority groups. That makes them highly sought after, and of all the swing states up for grabs in November, Florida (29 electoral votes) has more Jewish voters than any other.

That's a big reason why Mitt Romney visited Israel this weekend. For him, the road to the White House goes through Florida, and the road to Florida passes through Jerusalem. The soon-to-be GOP nominee thinks his Israel visit will siphon away some Jewish voters from President Obama in the Sunshine State — and he may be right. Obama got 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, and a recent Gallup survey showed him getting 68 percent now. That's an overwhelming majority, but in a mega-swing state like Florida, where every vote will count, a shift of 10 points could be huge. 

With that in mind, the strategy surrounding Romney's trip to Israel is two-pronged: First, he wants to show where he and Obama differ on foreign policy, particularly with respect to Israel's arch-enemy, Iran. Second, the visit is meant to offer a not-too-subtle reminder to American Jews that Obama has never visited Israel as president — the implication being that Obama doesn't hold the Jewish state in high enough regard. (Like Romney now, Obama visited as a candidate four years ago). But hope as he might that this strategy will be effective, Romney has a harder sell on both fronts than he realizes.

Lots of presidents never bothered to visit the Jewish state. Among them: Ronald Reagan.

Let's tackle the second part first. It's true: Obama, as president, has never visited Israel. This means two things: 1) jack and 2) squat. 

Lots of presidents never bothered to visit the Jewish state. Among them: Ronald Reagan — not once in eight years. George Bush Sr. — not once in four years. Gerald Ford never went. Jimmy Carter went just once in four years. Richard Nixon waited five-and-a-half-years to visit. George W. Bush waited seven years to visit, before going twice. The only modern president who made a regular habit of visiting: Bill Clinton, who made the pilgrimage six times during his eight years in office. Bottom line: Most presidents just couldn't be bothered. To this list, we can add Barack Obama.

Does the fact that President Reagan never went to Israel mean he didn't give a damn about it? Of course not. Reagan was a staunch and respectful defender of the Jewish state (aside from the uproar he caused in 1985 when he visited a German cemetery that held remains of Hitler's Nazi SS). 

What about President Obama? Today, the litmus test of American support for Israel concerns Iran and its effort to develop nuclear weapons.  Obama's view: "I do not have a policy of containment," he told a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in March. "I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I've made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests." 

Romney's view is no different. A U.S. military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities "should not be ruled out" if other measures fail, he told an Israeli newspaper this weekend. "I am personally committed to take every step necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability." 

What about Obama's tough sanctions on Iran? Romney told ABC over the weekend that sanctions "are beginning to have a greater impact on Iran," and even some Iranian leaders agree. Tehran has largely been cut off from the world's financial system, forcing it to use the more cumbersome black market to wheel and deal. Oil sanctions by the European Union have cut deeply into state revenues. There are shortages of goods, prices are soaring, and unemployment is said to be as high as 30 percent.

But there's little evidence that this tightening of the screws has done much to slow down Iran's nuclear program. Which is why both Obama and Romney say the military option remains on the table. No difference there.

Of course, some small differences do exist. Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu, the tough Israeli prime minister, are old friends who worked together at a Boston consulting group in the mid-1970s. Obama and Bibi, meanwhile, have a chilly, distant relationship. There's no question who the Israeli leader wants to see win in November. Does this mean a President Romney might be more willing to go along with Netanyahu if it came to war? It might. In his Jerusalem speech, Romney said Iran must be prevented "from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability." (Emphasis added). This appears to be stricter than Obama's insistence that Iran won't be allowed to build an actual bomb. By that measure, Iran may have already crossed what Romney considers to be a red line. 

And what about that ever-elusive peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians? Obama and Romney agree on the ends — a two-state solution with a safe and secure Israel — but not the means. The president angered many Jews with his 2011 remark that Israel should return to pre-1967 borders with land swaps agreed upon by both Israelis and Palestinians. He also demanded a freeze on new housing construction in disputed areas of Jerusalem.

There's no way Romney would ever go that far, but he hasn't said exactly what he would do, other than insisting that Jerusalem, including the disputed eastern half of the city, belongs to Israel — a stance which has already infuriated the Palestinians. But in the end, Romney might not do anything, which realistically might be his most pragmatic option. Many a president has burned valuable political capital chasing Mideast peace.


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