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What Are the Stakes for Israel? Part Three

In parts one and two of this series, I discussed President Obama’s often problematic relationship with Israel. While noting his decision not to interfere with the existing security relationship between the two countries, there is no doubt that the alliance has suffered from his lack of empathy for Israel, his active hostility toward Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and doubts about his willingness to do more than talk about the threat from a nuclear Iran. But the other side of the question facing pro-Israel voters is whether Mitt Romney provides a clear alternative to Obama on Israel-related issues.

Romney would come into office with a lot of good will from Israelis, whom polls show prefer him to Obama. He also has a better relationship with Netanyahu (though it is hard to imagine anyone having a worse one). But arguments for Romney on Israel-related issues have a lot more to do with the fact that he is not Barack Obama than with his own virtues. Though there are some fundamental differences between the two that speak well for Romney, Jewish Republicans are in some respects taking a leap of faith about the GOP candidate in much the same way as some Democrats did with Obama.

One clear difference is as much philosophical as it is practical. Though Romney does not have much of a record on foreign policy issues and is generally far less comfortable speaking about foreign affairs than he is about economics and other domestic policies, he is clear about one thing: he doesn’t want there to be much public daylight between the U.S. and Israel. President Obama came into office determined to open up some distance between the two nations, because of either his own inclinations or a belief that too much closeness undermined the peace process. While he did create that distance due to constant fights about settlements, borders and Jerusalem, the peace process didn’t prosper–and that is a lesson that has not been lost on Romney and his advisors.

However, to assume that Romney will never quarrel with Israel or Netanyahu is probably a bit naïve.

First of all, the nature of the relationship will be defined as much by the people Romney chooses to run the State and Defense Departments as well as his national security apparatus. Should Romney succumb to the siren song of James Baker-style “realists” and fill at least some crucial positions with persons who are wedded to the failed patent nostrums of the peace process or who are not serious about stopping Iran’s nuclear threat, then all the good vibes between Mitt and Bibi will not count for as much as some think.

Second, even if Romney does fulfill his vow for Israel to be his first foreign destination while president (and let’s not underestimate the value of the symbolism of such a trip, after Obama’s refusal to go to Israel, in terms of demonstrating to Israel’s foes the strength of the alliance), anyone who thinks Romney will act on Iran rather than just talk about the threat–as Obama has–is operating on faith, not tangible proof. The problem with having no real track record on foreign policy is not just that we don’t know for sure what Romney will do but that this weakness could make him vulnerable to listening to the foreign policy establishment, and that would not be good for Israel.

It is worth pointing out that even George W. Bush, who enjoyed a justified reputation as an ardent friend of Israel, did many things during his eight years in office that disappointed the Jewish state. In his second term, he virtually handed over the relationship to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose policies were little different from those of President Clinton and diverged from those of Obama only in tone rather than substance. Bush didn’t choose to act on Iran and forbade the Israelis from doing so on their own.

Stating this doesn’t mean that Romney hasn’t stated excellent positions on foreign policy and defense that make good sense as well as being supportive of Israel. His intentions seem good. But running for president and being president are two different things. If Romney is elected, he will have to be judged by the same standard by which many Republicans damn Obama: his actions, not his campaign rhetoric.

The point here is not that Romney isn’t different from Obama on Israel. He does seem to have more innate sympathy and isn’t handicapped by hostility to Netanyahu or the political culture of the country. But to assume that he will stand by it consistently and have the guts to take heat for doing so, or that he would actually do something about Iran if that were what the situation called for, is an act of faith motivated largely by distrust of Obama, not a conclusion that can be supported by his record.

Jewish supporters of both the president and Romney will probably cast their votes based on each candidate’s positions on a host of other issues. Most Democrats acknowledge that the hyperbole about Obama’s love for Israel is bunk but think him passable nonetheless. Romney shines more by the comparison to Obama than on the merit of his own record. The issue here is not so much certainty about what either would do in the next four years but whether fears about Obama will overshadow doubts about Romney.

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