The Bullpen

Why the Mitt-Bibi bromance won't affect world affairs

Mitt Romney and Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu are pals, says The New York Times. But don't expect them to forge a Mideast peace accord anytime soon

Dana Liebelson

The New York Times recently published an article on a "quirk of history" — the warm friendship that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed when they worked together at Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s. The "Mitt and Bibi" story has made quite a few waves: Some are even likening the friendship to the famed chumminess between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

It's easy to understand the story's appeal. History is made up of personalities, and nothing can get a historian hopping like the idea of two political figures sharing an unlikely 36-year-long friendship. And "Mitt and Bibi" is as pithy a phrase as Keeping up with the Kardashians — but underpinned by a much more authentic love story.

Feeding the BFF hype is President Obama's personal notoriously chilly relationship with Netanyahu — perhaps best summed up by that embarrassing gaffe last November when Obama was overheard responding to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had called Netanyahu a liar,  by saying, "You're fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you."

"Mitt and Bibi" is as pithy a phrase as Keeping up with the Kardashians, but underpinned by a much more authentic love story.

The Times reminds us that the Mitt and Bibi friendship is coming to light at a time "when the United States may face crucial questions about whether to attack Iran's nuclear facilities or support Israel in such an action." If Romney is elected, will his chummy friendship with Netanyahu actually influence American foreign policy?

I interviewed a number of foreign policy experts on how the relationship could impact U.S. action in the Middle East, and how it might influence voters come November. I put Mitt and Bibi in three scenarios, and asked the experts to weigh in:

1. U.S. intervention in Iran
On paper,
Romney's stated policy on Iran is remarkably similar to Obama's: He advocates for sanctions, strengthening military engagement with U.S. allies in the region, and keeping military force on the table. Will his relationship with Netanyahu change Romney's stance? Not likely. Leila Hilal, co-director of the New America Foundation Middle East Task Force, says "Romney's personal persuasion for Netanyahu will be checked by the broader U.S. strategic interests at stake in an attack on Iran, and the majority of U.S. public opinion — which is against entering into another war."

Walter Reich, the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial professor of international affairs at George Washington University and former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, says Netanyahu is conflicted about an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. "There's hardly a consensus in Israel as to what to do — I'm visiting Israel right now, and every Israeli with whom I discuss this is torn."

Israel will do what it feels necessary, regardless of who is in the Oval Office, and a U.S. military strike will occur only if U.S. military and security officials are convinced it's in America's national security interests. These interests are likely to override any personal relationship Romney has with Netanyahu.

2. An Israel-Palestine peace agreement
"The likelihood that Romney's presence at 1600 Pennsylvania can help seal a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians is very low," says Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. However, he also says the "lack of trust" between Obama and Netanyahu certainly hasn't encouraged the prime minister to be bold in pursuing a peace agreement — and Romney's election may lead to renewed diplomatic activity. It should be noted, though, that "the Palestinians know this is a close friendship, and they don't like it," which could make it harder for Romney. Will all these pros and cons cancel each other out?

Hilal says U.S. foreign policy toward Israel is too set in stone to be upended by Romney. "Given the near-blind bipartisan support historically lent to Israel by the White House and Congress, it is hard to envision a substantial shift in practical outcomes."

3. The 2012 presidential election
While the Mitt-Bibi relationship "introduces Romney to the Jewish community in a way he hadn't quite been known before," says Maggie Haberman at Politico, it won't have much of an effect, if any, come November. Most Americans vote by domestic concerns, and even American Jews are unlikely to make the Israel issue a priority in their voting, say experts. "A very small percentage of Americans cast their vote based on a candidate's Middle East policy — from what we understand, even most Jewish Americans don't vote that way," says Schanzer.

Furthermore, Reich says, "For decades, Jews have supported Democrats overwhelmingly, and I don't see [that changing] because of Romney's friendship with Netanyahu." Hilal also argues that no matter how the issue is manipulated by the Romney campaign, it will have "little impact" on neoconservative and evangelical voters, because they're already in Romney's camp.

So while the description of Mitt and Bibi speaking "almost in shorthand," nurturing a friendship over (candlelight?) "meals in Boston, New York and Jerusalem," and leaving "deep impressions on each other" certainly makes a fine story — it's just won't affect much of anything should Romney be elected president.


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