Four summers ago, when Barack Obama landed in Israel, one of the country's most popular papers headlined the event, "Obamania" and reported that he was greeted "like a rock star." This past weekend, Mitt Romney was not received in Israel as a rock star. The Hebrew headlines on his arrival noted his close friendship with Benjamin Netanyahu—and that he bombed in London. By the time he left, Romney managed to shift attention to his hawkish positions on Iran, but also to his breaches of American and Israeli political manners. His partnership with the Israeli prime minister was even more conspicuous than when he came.
What Israelis learned about Mitt may seem tangential to the U.S. election. But a close read of Romney's visit matters—not just to that small number of Jewish voters whom Romney hoped to sway, but to anyone who cares about the U.S.-Israel relationship and, more widely, to anyone concerned about a potential president's ability to handle foreign policy. The Romney stopover in Jerusalem wasn't as hide-your-face embarrassing as the one in Britain, but it should be more troubling.
Romney's planning showed serial inattention to local customs: The visit was scheduled so that he arrived late Saturday at the beginning of Tisha Be'av, a sundown-to-sundown fast and day of mourning in the Jewish calendar. A fundraiser with refreshments was set for Sunday evening as the fast ended. Caught off-guard by criticism, the campaign moved the event to Monday morning, and filled the open slot with a post-fast dinner with Bibi and Sara Netanyahu. (Netanyahu actually doesn't observe the fast, a detail to which the prime minister would usually avoid calling attention out of deference to religious coalition partners). Romney nonetheless paid a quick visit to the Western Wall on the afternoon of Tisha Be'Av with a horde of photographers—providing pictures at the holy place for voters at home while again disturbing the solemn mood of the day.
In the widely circulated newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, Romney's arrival was consigned on Sunday to pages 8 and 9, with a sidebar listing his multiple gaffes in London and a large picture of Obama signing a law expanding defense aid to Israel. The competing Ma'ariv put Romney just as deep inside the paper, and detailed the Obama defense package in large type—better coverage than it would have gotten without Romney's trip.
In the high-brow Ha'aretz, Romney was interviewed by columnist Ari Shavit, an Iran hawk who tossed him questions slow and down the middle. In his introduction, though, Shavit wrote that Romney would like to be Ronald Reagan, but lacked the Republican icon's passion and Reagan's "naïveté suffused with a sense of mission." In the interview, Romney demonstrated another difference with Reagan: Asked if it wasn't better for Israel and America to retain a certain distance, he answered that any disagreements between the countries should be discussed only "in private," not made public. Reagan had no such compunctions—as shown, for instance, by his very public suspension of a security pact after Israel annexed the Golan Heights. In fact, no previous president, Republican or Democratic, has followed Romney's proposed rule.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, the ceremonial head of state, made clear that he was a stickler for another kind of etiquette: Before he met Romney, his advisers reportedly told Romney's arranger, Dan Senor, that Peres would follow precisely the format of his meeting with Obama four years ago. Peres wanted to keep Israel above the American partisan divide. The leak was a very slightly veiled criticism of Netanyahu, who made his partisan preference obvious: He had a morning meeting with Romney as well as dinner, and publicly stressed their personal friendship and Romney's support for Israel.
Romney's speech on foreign policy made the alliance ever more blatant: It followed a Bibi-esque outline so closely it seemed written in the prime minister's office and delivered to his surrogate. Romney began with the "ancient promise made in this land" to the Jews, then segued to the Holocaust. He said nothing about a two-state agreement with the Palestinians. Instead, he focused on Iran, saying that it must not be allowed to achieve "nuclear weapons capability"—in contrast to Obama's commitment to prevent Iran from actually building a bomb. Helping Israel with "military and intelligence cooperation alone" wasn't good enough, Romney said, devaluing the latest aid package; the U.S. has to avoid any "diplomatic distance" in public. Israeli news sites quickly reported the "barbs aimed at … Obama" in violation of "rules of protocol" for American candidates abroad.
(To be fair to Netanyahu, it's doubtful that he had a role in Romney's most blatant gaffe: his comment to donors on Monday morning that the "dramatically stark difference in economic vitality" between Israelis and the Palestinians were due to cultural differences. The comment was notable both for its racist overtones and its blithe ignorance of the economic impact of the Israeli occupation on the West Bank.)
Before the trip, Romney's campaign arranged meetings with two opposition leaders—the head of the centrist Kadima party, Shaul Mofaz, and Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich. The Labor leader is likely to be the stronger candidate in elections that must take place by next year. On Sunday morning, as Romney met with Netanyahu, Romney's man Senor canceled the meeting with Yacimovich. The media heavily reported Labor charges that Netanyahu had stepped in to avoid adding to Yacimovich's stature.
If the charge isn't true, Romney outdid himself at clumsiness. But Labor's claim resonates because Romney's team and Netanyahu's flow together almost seamlessly. Netanyahu's top adviser, Ron Dermer is American-born; he got his start in politics working for the Republican congressional campaign in 1994 before moving to Israel. Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson is also a long-time Netanyahu backer.
During Romney's visit, he and Netanyahu behaved as two candidates of the same Likudlican Party. The relationship may please the Republican Jewish Coalition. But it is deeply unhealthy for both countries. Israeli and American interests necessarily diverge at times. A commitment by a U.S. president never to voice public criticism of Israel would create an utterly unnatural limit on the leverage of one side in the relationship.
Besides that, a leader in one country should not be a participant in the other's politics. Both Romney and Netanyahu will soon face the voters. If both win, they will be overly bound to each other. If one wins and the other loses, the victor in his own country will face a leadership in the other that he has already slighted. Because of their own behavior, the only win-win outcome is for both to lose.