On the eve of Mitt Romney’s foreign tour that will take him to Britain, Poland and Israel, the Obama campaign made a classic mistake. Rightly sensing that Romney’s visit to the Jewish state would highlight not just the fact that the president had never gone there during his four years in office but the fights he had picked with Israel, the Democrats responded by pledging that some time during the next four years Obama would find a few days to go there himself. But rather than one-upping the GOP nominee, the promise merely worsened his difficulties with Jewish and pro-Israel voters. Having conspicuously avoided Israel throughout his first term even while feeling the need to go to Egypt and other places in the region, Obama’s vow is a lame rejoinder to Romney. He would have been far better off merely trying to ignore the Republican. Instead, by saying that if he’s re-elected he’ll deign to go there he’s admitted there’s a problem.
Obama’s supporters are right to respond that visits are symbolic and that the substance of the U.S.-Israel relationship transcends photo opportunities. But their problem is the Romney visit is a reminder this administration set out from its first moments in office to distance itself from Israel as part of its rejection of everything it associated with George W. Bush. Because Bush was close to Israel, they wanted more daylight between the two countries and quickly achieved their goal. Had President Obama not spent his first three years picking fights with Israel over the status of Jerusalem, settlements and the 1967 borders and relentlessly pressuring it to make concessions to a Palestinian Authority that had no interest in peace, it wouldn’t matter if Mitt Romney spent the whole summer touring the country.
It’s true, as the Democrats point out, that the president has not torpedoed the entire alliance. The security relationship between the two countries set in place by his predecessors has been maintained. But to claim he deserves the support of pro-Israel voters because he refrained from destroying the alliance infrastructure is hardly a compelling argument.
Only partisans and those committed to a policy of opposing Israel’s democratically-elected government can pretend that the years prior to the commencement of Obama’s election-year Jewish charm offensive were not primarily characterized by the administration’s determination to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians. Though his defenders claim there was nothing new about what he did, Obama’s stands on settlements and Jerusalem did more to undermine Israel’s position than any of his predecessors. But the Palestinians not only did not take advantage of Obama’s gifts but predictably, were encouraged by the rift between Israel and the U.S. to avoid negotiations altogether. The result was that Obama took an already bad situation and found a way to make it worse.
The interesting thing about Obama’s worries about pro-Israel voters is that it wouldn’t have taken much from him to convince them he was Israel’s friend. A visit would have helped, but a stopover in Israel would have contradicted the signals he was trying to send to the Arab and Muslim world that he was more open to them than Bush. An avoidance of needless squabbles about settlements, Jerusalem and borders would have cost him nothing, especially as turning these points into major fights didn’t convince the Palestinians to even return to negotiations or win him the friends he wanted in the Muslim world. If the transition to the charm offensive after three years of battles with Israel seemed effortless, it was because there was never any strategic rationale for Obama’s obsession with downgrading the alliance with Israel.
If the president does go to Israel during his second term, he will be welcomed there as any American president would be. But there is no reason to think a belated attempt to rectify the problems he created will be fixed by such a promise. If Romney benefits from his visit, it is because of Obama’s policies, not just because the president has stayed away.