There will be those who will claim Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s just announced trip to Israel this month will trump Mitt Romney’s visit later this summer. We will be told this will be evidence of the power of incumbency and the sweet talk uttered by Clinton will balance if not overshadow anything Romney might do or say. But that will be nothing but Democrat spin. Clinton’s trip will not only do nothing to ease President Obama’s difficulties with pro-Israel voters. The decision to send the secretary rather than the president finally breaking down and making his first stop in the Jewish state — something obviously in his political interests as well as a smart foreign policy move — only emphasizes the coolness in relations between the two countries during the past three and a half years.
Stopping in the one foreign country where Romney is more popular than the president won’t turn the election, but it does draw attention to the generally frigid atmosphere between Obama and the Israeli government. But nothing Clinton does or says on her visit can alter the impression of hostility that was the keynote of the U.S. attitude toward Israel prior to the start of the president’s re-election campaign. The one thing lacking from the election year Jewish charm offensive is any evidence of genuine warmth or a sense from the president he understands or sympathizes with Israel’s dilemma despite occasional rhetorical thrusts in that direction. A visit to Israel could perhaps help with that, but Israel is apparently the one American ally Obama refuses to call on even if he is already in the neighborhood. A Clinton stopover there won’t make up for that.
Nor can Clinton credibly play the role of Israel’s friend among Obama’s chief counselors. Clinton has, after all, been the public face of the administration’s efforts to undermine Israel’s stand on Jerusalem, administering undiplomatic tongue-lashings to Prime Minister Netanyahu whenever the president’s pique at Israel flared up into the annual spats that soured relations and encouraged Palestinian intransigence. The contrast between her fervent support for the Jewish state while she was a senator (and beholden to New York’s Jewish voters) and the brusque relations between Foggy Bottom and the Netanyahu government is also a reminder of the hollow nature of Democratic assurances about an Obama presidency’s affection for Israel prior to his election in 2008.
Democrats will rightly recall President Obama did go to Israel when he was running in 2008, but the contrast between that visit and Romney’s illustrates the Democrats’ dilemma with the pro-Israel vote. Then Senator Obama schlepped to Israel four summers ago in order to counter the widespread impression he was cool to the Jewish state. Plus, he never stood out as a supporter up until that point in his career. While there, he said all the right things, but we all know now that once he took office, putting some distance between Israel and the United States was one of his top foreign policy priorities as well as satisfying his desire to be different from George W. Bush in every possible respect.
Romney has no such baggage with him on his trip. Nor does he have to live down his closeness with anti-Israel figures such as Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Palestinian polemicist Rashid Khalidi as Obama did. Though there are no guarantees a Romney administration will be as friendly to Israel as he claims it will, even most Democrats know it is unlikely he would perpetuate Obama’s well-documented personal hostility to Netanyahu. No matter what Clinton says or does on her trip, she won’t be able to alter the cloud that has hung over the alliance or reassure Israelis the president means business about Iran. Any political gains to be had on the question of Israel remain in Romney’s hands.