Mitt Romney’s Israel Policy Wouldn’t Be Very Different

The Republican promises to do the “opposite” on Israel from Barack Obama, but that is unlikely.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney last month promised that, if elected, his policy toward Israel would be the very “opposite” of incumbent president Barack Obama’s. On a visit to Israel last Sunday, he added another promise: to use “any and all measures” to prevent Israel’s nemesis Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Whatever the candidate’s rhetoric, a Romney Administration’s Israel policy probably wouldn’t be all that different from Obama’s.

The former Massachusetts governor, who is expected to be formally nominated for his party’s presidential candidacy in Tampa, Florida next month, has repeatedly criticized the Democratic incumbent for supposedly showing weakness toward Iran.

“He almost sounded like he’s more frightened that Israel might take military action than he’s concerned that Iran might become nuclear,” Romney said last month. During a primary election debate in November, he vowed that if the United States elected him as president, Iran “will not have a nuclear weapon” whereas, “If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon.”

While refraining from overtly criticizing the president in Israel, Romney did say in a speech that he could not “stand silent as those who seek to undermine Israel voice their criticisms.”

And we certainly should not join in that criticism. Diplomatic distance in public between our nations emboldens Israel’s adversaries.

Republicans have accused President Obama of souring the American-Israeli relationship by demanding, almost immediately after taking office in 2009, that Israel seize settlement construction in Palestinian territories which emboldened the Palestinians to abandon bilateral negotiations with the Israelis for recognition of statehood and take their case to the United Nations — where the United States dutifully pledged to block this attempt in the Security Council.

On other fronts, the relationship has hardly ever been stronger, writes Michael Koplow at Ottomans and Zionists. Intelligence sharing and military cooperation is at an all time high. “Whether it be funding for Iron Dome,” the Israeli missile shield, “coordination on Stuxnet,” a computer worm that targeted Iran’s uranium enrichment infrastructure, “and other measures meant to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program,” possibly including the assassination of scientists, “or the sale of advanced weaponry, Israel and the United States enjoy a closer relationship now than at any other time in the last sixty years.”

Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak said as much in August of last year when he told Fox News, “I can hardly remember a better period of American support and backing and cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.”

This cooperation is unlikely to change dramatically under a Romney Administration as, according to Koplow, is America’s position in the peace process.

The United States have maintained for decades that there should be a two-state solution even if the Palestinians cite American tolerance of Israeli settlement construction as a major impediment to the erection of a Palestinian state. “My guess is that Romney will occupy the same position as George W. Bush,” writes Koplow, “which is to have an official policy against continued Israeli settlement expansion but to do nothing about it in practice.”

Even on preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear weapons capacity, there are, in fact, no notable differences between Obama and Romney. The latter told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. I feel a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. The term ‘unacceptable’ continues to have a meaning. It suggests that all options will be employed to prevent that outcome.”

So whence Romney’s bluster? It is hardly to court the Jewish vote at home which makes up a mere 2 percent of the electorate and has voted overwhelmingly Democratic for generations. American Jews living in Israel, by contrast, vote largely Republican. Romney doesn’t need to convince them that he has their back.

Rather, he has to assure evangelical Christians, a key Republican constituency that has been wary of Romney’s self-declared conservatism, that he is as staunch a supporter of Israel’s as they are. Even if his policy won’t be markedly different from the president’s, criticizing him for failing to speak out more forcefully in support of Israel could help him endear the trust of right-wing voters whom he’ll need to turn out in November to win the election.