It is now customary for American presidential candidates to visit Israel and to express their warm support for the Jewish state. In that sense, Mitt Romney’s visit to Jerusalem may be viewed as just typical smart politics, especially for a Republican seeking to shore up evangelical support as well as hoping to make inroads among Jewish voters. Indeed, there was a good deal of overlap between some of Romney’s speech yesterday to the Jerusalem Foundation and positions that President Obama has taken the past few months, notably about rejecting containment of a nuclear Iran.
But Romney’s speech went further on several points than the standard American political pledge to back Israel. He not only acknowledged Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he laid down a position on the Iranian nuclear threat that went much further than that of the administration. By saying Iran must not be allowed to enrich nuclear material, by saying stopping it is the highest national security priority of the United States and by explicitly and pointedly endorsing Israel’s duty to defend itself, Romney laid down a marker that signals if he is elected, American policy on the issue will be very different.
On Jerusalem, cynics are entitled to view Romney’s statement that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital as something that will not be translated into policy if he wins in November. For decades, American candidates and parties have pledged to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and always renege. It is not likely that Romney will be any different in that respect. Coming as it did in the days after both the White House and the State Department refused to make the same acknowledgement, Romney’s remark sought to increase their embarrassment and angered the Palestinian Authority.
It should be remembered that in 2008, candidate Barack Obama acknowledged a unified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel when speaking to a Jewish audience and then quickly backtracked a day later. Though the embassy will probably not be moving in a Romney administration, it is doubtful he will retract his remarks.
On Iran, Romney’s position was much stronger than even the president’s often-tough rhetoric on the issue. Both say they will not tolerate a nuclear Iran and will stop it. But the administration draws the line in a different place. They seem willing to live with an Iran that might have the capability of getting a nuke, which explains the president’s going along with compromise proposals set forth by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that would allow Iran to go on refining uranium. Romney rightly opposes any such measure.
While Romney said, “It is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will” stop Iran, he made it clear that no other option — an obvious reference to the use of force — “should be excluded.” And by explicitly endorsing Israel’s right to self-defense in this same context, he also sent a signal (unlike Obama), that stopping Israel from acting on this issue will not be his priority.
Although the specifics of the speech were enough to present a strong contrast with the positions of the administration, the strength of his remarks was in how he expressed these points. It is not enough for an American leader to merely acknowledge the bonds between the two countries. It is vital they show they understand Israel and care deeply about it, a test President Obama has consistently failed.
Romney didn’t merely say Israel had a right to defend itself. By placing the current crisis in the context of Jewish history and saying Israel’s leaders have, in the words of Menachem Begin, “the responsibility to make sure that never again will our independence be destroyed and never again will the Jew become homeless or defenseless,” he demonstrated he understood that history and its meaning for policymakers.
Just as important, Romney does not harbor the same illusions about Iran and its leaders that hamper the president’s understanding of the issue. Unlike Obama, who wasted most of his years in office on feckless attempts to “engage” Iran and weak diplomatic initiatives, Romney understands the conflict with Tehran is one that is, as he put it, as much a moral test as it is one of policy. He takes the Iranians at their word when they say they wish to destroy Israel and, to his credit, says, “I will not look away; and neither will my country.”
One cannot predict what a candidate will do once elected president. If he does win, Romney may well disappoint many of those who cheered his remarks yesterday. But the one thing he did establish was that he has a fundamental understanding of the moral aspects of Israel’s defense policy and the nature of the Iranian regime that threatens the Jewish state. Veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller wrote last week that President Obama is more like Jimmy Carter and unlike those presidents such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who were “in love with the idea of Israel.” Whatever happens in the coming years, it’s clear Romney “gets” Israel–and Barack Obama does not.