Mitt’s Mission in Israel: Optics, Christian Zionists and Absentee Ballots

The Republican candidate hopes to increase the perceived space between Obama and Netanyahu to court prized electoral groups in November. The incumbent, however, isn't sitting idly.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney boards his charter plane at London Stansted Airport, Saturday, July 28, 2012, as he travels to Israel.

Charles Dharapak / AP

There are a number of ways to understand Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel, where he pitches up Saturday night from London.

One is optics, as they like to say in Washington. The presumptive Republican nominee clearly wants to occupy the chilly space visible between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose tense personal relationship feeds the impression that Obama is cool toward not only Bibi, as Netanyahu is universally known, but also toward Israel itself. What supposed evidence of which might exist – the Cairo speech, Obama’s insisting on a settlement freeze as a pre-condition to peace talks with the Palestinians – is both receding in time and being pushed into the background by the keen, almost obsessive attention the White House has paid Israel in the last two years, in official visits, security coordination and, yes, dollars.

The latest arrived Saturday, when Obama signed a bill sending $70 million to Israel to pay for more of the anti-missile batteries called Iron Dome, the wonder technology that’s been knocking down 80 percent of the missiles fired toward Israeli cities from the Gaza Strip. Defense minister Ehud Barak promptly issued a statement of thanks, pointedly calling the aid “yet another expression of the consistent support of the Obama administration, and indeed of the U.S. congress, to the security of the State of Israel.” Such is the power of the incumbency. There will be more. Coming in October, as the fall campaign crests: The largest US-Israel joint military operation in history.

(PHOTOS: On the Trail With Romney)

But as the Romney campaign appears to know well, body language is a lot more fun to read than official statements. Of six public events on Sunday, five are “photo sprays,” grip and grins with Israeli politicians, plus Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad. The candidate is seeing Netanyahu twice, in the morning for a meeting, and later for dinner with their wives. The husbands already know each other, and even worked together briefly long ago at Bain Capital. Though Netanyahu told TIME Managing Editor Rick Stengel that they weren’t exactly pals – “He was the whiz kid; I was just in the back of the room” — Romney boasts of the shared history. The men also share a professed esteem for capital markets (much to the chagrin of progressives), and of course antipathy to Obama. Romney refuses to criticize the president while traveling overseas, but his entire visit to Israel is framed by his famous accusation, during the GOP primary, that Obama is “throwing Israel under the bus.”

Much is being made of the fundraiser Romney has scheduled in Jerusalem, a $50,000 –a-head affair that will include Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas billionaire who is also a patron of Netanyahu (Adelson started what is now Israel’s largest newspaper to help get Bibi elected). But the visit also counts as a GOTV — Get Out the Vote — activity. Because while polls show Obama continues to hold the allegiance of Jewish voters in America – stalwart Democrats who vote on social justice and other liberal issues – that’s not the story for American Jews living in Israel. And there are a bunch of them — about 300,000, roughly half of whom are eligible to cast absentee ballots back home. These are Jews who vote Republican, even if they’re not registered that way.

(VIDEO: Governor Mitt Romney Talk to TIME)

“Oh, it’s amazing,” says Kory Bardash, co-chair of Republicans Abroad in Israel. “Whereas the American Jewish vote in 2008 was nearly 80% for Obama, here in Israel expats went 76% for McCain.” Many were registered Democrats, who likely voted blue on “down-ballot” race, like congressional seats. “But when you live abroad,” says Bardash, “you really focus on foreign policy.”

In the big picture, Romney’s pointed show of support for Israel is surely intended to impress Christian evangelical voters. “Christian Zionists” are Israel’s secret weapon in U.S. politics, a powerful constituency for the Jewish State present in every congressional district. But in a close race, Bardash says, absentee ballots can make a difference. (Just ask Al Gore.) So it can’t hurt to motivate the GOP’s most reliable Jewish vote.

“Of the 150,000 eligible voters living in Israel, I’d say about 40 to 50 percent come from safe Democratic states – Illinois, New York, California,” he says. “That leaves about 75,000 or 80,000, including a lot of people from swing states: Florida, Colorado, Ohio, Wisconsin…”

MORE: In the Holy Land, Romney to Court the Jewish Vote