Romney’s Israel Stop: Keeping Up Appearances

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Dan Balilty / AP

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney pauses next to the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 29, 2012.

Though his remarks Monday morning later threatened to prove otherwise, it appeared that Mitt Romney got in and out of Israel with what he’d hoped for:  No gaffes, no real headlines — nothing so substantial as to risk a clear view of the image he had traveled halfway around the world to produce: footage of a U.S. presidential candidate and Israel’s Prime Minister standing side by side as if they actually liked each other. At one point Sunday, as the cameras rolled, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached toward his guest and adjusted the microphone. It was an absent-minded gesture that meant nothing more than that: a microphone needed adjusting. Yet it’s difficult to imagine Netanyahu doing the same beside President Obama, so fraught and freighted have their joint appearances become.

The incident underscores once again how much politics really is about appearances. Because on the meat of the matters at hand – Iran, Syria, all the weighty affairs of state chewed over during 50 minutes in Netanyahu’s office – Romney’s visit served to highlight how little his positions differ from Obama’s, at least according to an Israeli official who was in the room.

“It was actually very similar –which is quite interesting – to the meeting we had four and a half years ago with then-candidate Obama,” says Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. “And candidate McCain. It was quite a typical meeting.”

On a glum day, Romney showed up in a Jerusalem at half staff. The Arab sections of the city were subdued by Ramadan, the month-long fast during daylight hours. And the Jewish side observed Tisha B’av, the annual day of mourning for the destruction of the first two Temples of Jerusalem (the second is known as the Western Wall). The candidate visited at mid-afternoon, slipping a prayer into the cracks amid the tumult of a campaign visit.

The timing had its effects. At first the campaign planned its famous on-foreign-soil fundraiser for daylight hours, when devout Jews were observing a fast. The $50,000 a person affair, limited to American citizens, was shifted to Monday morning before departure for Poland. But the solemnity of Sunday, with its light traffic and summer haze, cost the visit some frisson. Monday morning’s Hebrew language newspapers were preoccupied with Netanyahu’s budget, which raises taxes, and the largest paid circulation daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, didn’t even front the presumptive Republican nominee.

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“Romney? Who’s Romney?” asks Ofer Eliyahu, 25, selling cell phones at a mall in a north Jerusalem neighborhood called Pisgat Ze’ev. “He’s Jewish, no?”  Jewish? No. He’s Mormon. “What’s Mormon?” A kind of Christian. Eliyahu shrugs, then condenses Israeli public opinion as detected by polls: “I think he may be better for Israel. Obama doesn’t do anything for Israel. Only lately.”

After a London stop that produced only gaffes, the Jerusalem visit began with the threat of news. Dan Senor, a Romney foreign policy adviser, told reporters the candidate’s evening speech would express “respect” for an Israeli decision to strike Iran. The speech itself turned out to be less bold, deferring, as Obama has, to Israel’s sovereign rights, albeit in language more in line with the Israeli view.

That re-alignment of perspective was the theme undergirding the trip – a marked shift from at least the pretense of balanced policy that became Republican orthodoxy in the presidential primaries, where candidates battled to see who could embrace Israel more firmly to the bosom. The plainspoken Herman Cain made the identification complete during his own visit to Jerusalem last year, at the same luxury hotel, the King David, where Romney received visitors. “If it assumes Israel is going to give up anything that Israel does not want to give up,” he said, “I’m against that.”

At the time, Romney’s history with Netanyahu – the men both worked at Boston Consulting years ago – gave him a leg up in the competition: “I would get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu,” he said in one primary debate, “and say, ‘Would it help if I said this? What would you like me to do?” In Jerusalem, Bibi apparently wanted his friend to cancel a scheduled meeting with leaders of the Labor Party, which has been surging in the polls in recent weeks.  Without explanation, the Romney campaign abruptly dropped the session from the schedule, a deference interpreted in the Hebrew press as clumsy, if not excessive.

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The candidates’ stated preoccupation with Iran’s “nuclear folly” was welcomed, however, as was his veiled criticism of Obama’s occasional criticism of Israel for expanding the West Bank settlements that every U.S. president has termed an impediment to establishing a Palestinian state on land Israel has occupied since 1967. “Standing by Israel does not mean with military and intelligence cooperation alone,” Romney said. “We cannot stand silent as those who seek to undermine Israel voice their criticisms. And we certainly should not join in that criticism. Diplomatic distance between our nations emboldens Israel’s adversaries.”

The biggest ovation, however, came when Romney pointedly declared Jerusalem “the capital of Israel,” a geographical given that, in diplomacy, risks repudiation of Palestinian aspirations to make the city the capital of their own state, should it occur. The setting mattered, too: Romney made his remarks on a hillside overlooking the walls of the Old City, at a time of day when the setting sun casts the Ottoman-era stone aglow in what Jewish Israelis call the “Jerusalem of Gold.”

Had the camera platforms been set up a few feet to left, the wall visible behind Romney would have been a different one: the concrete barrier that divides portions of the Palestinian city from the rest. Although Romney met briefly with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the conflict that for more than half a century has defined the region was, at best, an afterthought in the working session with Netanyahu.

“The Palestinian issue,” former ambassador Zalman Shoval reports, “did not come up at the meeting.”