Mitt Versus the Middle East

(AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

A Palestinian woman walks past a section of Israel's separation barrier to cross a checkpoint on their way to pray for the holy fasting month of Ramadan at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Friday, Sept. 19, 2008.

Take a breath and think carefully. Was Mitt Romney's candid-camera comment on how he'd handle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict really as awful as it sounds at first?

Actually, yes. In fact, it's even worse, especially if you are listening to it in Israel, or the Palestinian territories, or anywhere else in the Middle East. The man who would be president of the United States has said that he would throw the entire region under the bus.

"The pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish," Romney says in the now-famous video of his May 17 campaign event, uncovered by Mother Jones. Put aside the candidate's struggle with English diction, and forget the ignorance of geography that allows him to assert that the West Bank has a common border with "Syria at one point." Romney dismisses any possibility of reaching a two-state agreement, and therefore rejects an American role in facilitating such an agreement. Though Israeli-Arab peace has been an American strategic goal since 1967, though presidents of both parties have agreed that reaching peace requires an Israeli pullback from occupied territory, Romney says that "the idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up … is the worst idea in the world." He admits that a former secretary of state phoned to tell him that there would be an opening for a peace agreement after Palestinian elections. Demonstrating his level of intellectual curiosity and concern with foreign affairs, Romney says, "I didn't delve into that," that being asking the ex-secretary to explain. As president, he would "kick the ball down the field" so that someone else can deal with it in some distant era.

Romney justifies this stance by asserting that "the Palestinians" do not want peace. This comment demonstrates why the definite article, used by an ignorant man, can be one of the most dangerous words in the English language. "The Palestinians," all of them, uncannily united, are "committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel," Romney asserts. A national group looks like a single, faceless mass when you don't care to learn anything about their personalities, their ideas, the divisions between them. For Romney, the split in Palestinian public opinion between supporters of a two-state and a one-state solution doesn't exist. Hamas and Fatah are the same, and neither of those movements has any internal debate. For that matter, Romney's comments to his donors suggest that he has a hard time drawing a distinction between the conservative Sunni, Arab kingdom of Jordan and the non-Arab, Shi'ite republic of Iran. Jordan's King Abdullah would let Mahmoud Ahmadinejad use Jordan as a transit point for shipping Iranian arms into the West Bank, he implies. Those people are all the same; after all, Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with Al-Qaeda. Allow me to pause and ask: Does America really want another president suffering this optical problem when he looks at the Middle East?

Were Romney to study up on internal Palestinian politics, he'd learn that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas advocates a two-state solution, to be achieved through diplomacy rather than violence. But there's a limit to how long Abbas can promise independence without delivering, especially when the Palestinian economy is deteriorating under occupation and Israel continues to expand settlements. Romney's illusion that he will be able to "kick the ball down the field" shows that he looks at a dynamic situation and sees it as static—again, not an optical handicap you want in a president. Without a new peace initiative, the possible scenarios include an internal Palestinian uprising against Abbas, another intifada against Israeli occupation, and growing international pressure for declaring a single state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, a state likely to be as stable as Bosnia was when it became independent. By writing off an American diplomatic effort, Romney is declaring that he is unwilling or incapable of doing anything in the real world to protect Israel or does not care about the denial of basic rights Palestinians.

He is also doing America no favors. The United States needs to maintain a moderating influence in a very quickly changing Middle East. But an American president who enters office with a stance of acceding entirely to Israeli positions and ignoring the Palestinian problem will have little if any credibility in the Arab world.

On policy toward Iran, Romney seems to read lines written for him by his friend Benjamin Netanyahu. On the Palestinians, he has not actually parroted Netanyahu; he has placed himself to Netanyahu's right. The Israeli prime minister, after all, has at least paid lip service to a two-state agreement. Then again, Netanyahu made that rhetorical concession early in his term, under strong pressure from President Barack Obama. If Romney wins in November, Netanyahu may see no reason to keep up the appearance of moderation. Romney, fumbling for a position on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse to present to his donors, came up with, "The only answer is show your strength. Again, American strength, American resolve…" That emotion will resonate with Netanyahu. Mitt and Bibi, like two adolescent boys, will believe that aggressiveness and a refusal to back down will solve all problems.

Romney's mid-summer foreign tour raised the question of whether he was just verbally clumsy or suffered a deeper misunderstanding of foreign policy. The latest disclosures strengthen the latter thesis: He fails to discern shadings, nuance and movement, all things one needs to see to conduct foreign policy. Those of us living in a dangerous region of the world at a dangerous time can only be very nervous as we await November. 

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