Moderate Mitt Takes on Israel

The final American presidential debate aired in the small hours of the Middle Eastern night. An Israeli who stayed up to watch was rewarded by learning some new facts from Mitt Romney: Iran is a land-locked country with access to the sea only through Syria. Romney believes America can push Israel and the Palestinians toward peace, and he faults President Barack Obama for failing to do so. An Israeli viewer could learn that Romney would not rush breakneck into war to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

An Israeli, that is, could conclude along with Americans that Mitt Romney has an identical twin whom he sent to debate in his place. In their views of the world, Mitt and his look-alike share only one thing: a blurred map of the Middle East in which Syria has borders with both Iran and the West Bank. Unlike Mitt, the brother is not bound to policies designed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and multi-national campaign funder Sheldon Adelson.

Obama regularly, forcefully reminded viewers that if there's just one Romney, he has been "all over the map" in foreign-policy pronouncements. But the president could have challenged Romney further about the pattern he has already created, as a candidate, in relations with Israel, the Palestinians and Iran. Obama was constrained by the debate's time limits and by electoral calculus. But what was left unsaid deserves attention.

For instance, Obama passed on responding to Romney's complaint that the president hasn't brought Israelis and Palestinians "closer to making peace than they were four years ago." This is, in fact, a weak point in Obama's record. His peace initiative stalled, in part because he did not want to risk paying a price domestically for putting greater pressure on Israel. It would have been impolitic for Obama to ask when Romney decided that an American effort could bring Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Yet even by Mitt's standards, that's a startling flip. In his "47 percent talk" to donors, Romney said a peace agreement was "unthinkable to accomplish" and that as president he'd "kick the ball down the field." He put the onus for deadlock entirely on the Palestinians. (In that talk, he also described Syria and the West Bank as sharing a border.) During his July visit to Israel, he attributed poverty in the West Bank to weakness in Palestinian culture, ignoring the economic impact of occupation. American mediation is indeed critical to renewing negotiations—but Romney would enter office already seen by Palestinians as arrogant and one-sided, discredited as a mediator.

In the debate, Obama was first to answer the moderator's question on Iran. The president did spotlight Romney's bellicose campaign rhetoric, saying the GOP candidate has "often talked as if we should take premature military action." Romney, again playing the moderate, denied this. Borrowing Obama's phrase, he insisted that he, too, saw a military attack on Iran as the "last resort."

But in Iran policy, a key question is when it's time for the last resort: In time to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon, or at some earlier point before it reaches nuclear "capability." Obama spoke, as he has before, of keeping Iran from building a weapon. Romney blurred the distinction, speaking in one breath of the "threat to us to have Iran have nuclear material, nuclear weapons." As the debate moved to other topics, Obama missed the chance to say, "Which is it, governor? Material, or weapons?"

In Jerusalem in July, though, Romney stated that America must prevent Iran from having "nuclear weapons capability." The wording fit that of his host, Benjamin Netanyahu, and won his praise. What Netanyahu means by the term seems to shift, but it's always a point earlier than Obama would set. Netanyahu has consistently charged Obama with be willing to wait too long, to trust too much on sanctions and diplomacy.

Which brings us to a third subject not raised in Boca Raton: The open collaboration of Netanyahu with Romney in the American campaign. Romney's Israel visit was a pilgrimage to Netanyahu. Adelson, their joint backer, came along. Romney had both a private dinner and a formal meeting with the prime minister—and canceled a meeting with the leader of the opposition Labor Party, Shelly Yacimovich. Netanyahu and Romney effused for reporters about their long friendship.

While Romney insists that their should be "no daylight" between the United States and Israel, Netanyahu continues to attack Obama publicly on the Iran issue without mentioning his name. The fury expresses Netanyahu's frustration: He lacks the American support he needs for an Israeli strike on Iran; without U.S. support he cannot win a majority in his own cabinet for sending the planes. But the anger also fits the very American, very Republican side of his own personality. Netanyahu doesn't see himself as a foreigner in U.S. politics. American Jews aren't his only audience. He has had a long alliance with American conservative evangelicals, and may be doing his best to energize the Republican base.

In Israel, Netanyahu has already faced biting criticism for interfering in the politics of Israel's essential ally. Romney shows no discomfort. Obama could not raise the issue at the debate without calling attention to his rival's warm ties with the Israeli leader.

On Monday, hours before the debate, Israel Radio's morning news program opened with the voice of Ephraim Halevy, ex-head of the Mossad intelligence agency. Halevy praised Obama's courage for sticking to sanctions. Romney's extreme rhetoric, he said, locked him into a position that we would have a hard time changing if he became president. If moderator Bob Schieffer had asked Romney about Halevy's warning Monday evening, the conversation might have sounded less unreal to Israeli ears. 

You may also like