Governor Romney told a Washington audience via a video uplink today that if elected he’ll do “the opposite” from Barack Obama when it comes to Israel.
In policy terms, it’s not exactly clear what that means. President Obama’s policy toward Israel (far and away one of his least successful foreign policy ventures in the first term) was to make unrealistic demands and alienating criticisms for a couple of exhilarating weeks, suffer a stinging embarrassment as both Israelis and Palestinians grew less happy with and less respectful of his diplomacy, and then spend months in an undignified and generally not very successful effort to repair the damage. Then he went and did more or less the same thing again.
It is not clear what the opposite of this mish-mash would be; in the end, President Obama finds himself making stronger and more fulsome commitments to Israel than his predecessors, but without getting much goodwill for it either in Israel or back in the United States. Perhaps Governor Romney simply means that he would go right to the strong commitments without the all the agonizing and humiliating middle steps involved in making demands that nobody meets and issuing recommendations that everyone ignores.
But regardless of the policy, and so far the Romney team has been successful in wrapping any foreign policy plans the candidate might have in an impenetrable web of silence and obscurity, striking the Israel note (while making as few specific commitments as possible) is a smart move for the campaign.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that the public remains largely committed to a pro-Israel foreign policy in the Middle East. Ironically, the Likud government of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and the parts of Jerusalem it annexed after the Six Day War make most American Jews a bit queasy. But among non-Jewish Americans, a candidate who projects a strong and uncompromising support for the Jewish state is standing on the political high ground.
To many non-Jewish Americans, support for Israel is tied at a deep level to belief in American exceptionalism. Many Americans believe that God has called this nation to a unique role in world history, and for a whole range of theological, cultural and historical reasons they see America’s world role as parallel to and in harmony with Israel’s. A candidate who seems to be ‘soft on Israel’ is telling non-Jewish Americans that he doesn’t really think America is a special place, and he doesn’t really think that God is guiding the historical process.
For Mitt Romney, whose strong Mormon faith makes him seem a little strange and offbeat to many Americans, sounding the Zionist trumpet has the effect of reassuring people that he is a “real” American, and that any unusual theological beliefs he may have do not make him less patriotic or less convinced that the United States is a special place with a special historical role.
Since the President’s mishandling of the Israel relationship have left him vulnerable and on the defensive about his support for Israel (a bit unfairly, but that is how politics often works). This gives Governor Romney an opportunity to solidify his claim to the the heartland, 100 percent American candidate against that (allegedly) cosmopolitan internationalist in the White House.
In all kinds of ways, making strong support for Israel an important element of his public persona strengthens the Romney campaign. It builds enthusiasm among the evangelicals in the GOP base, it stresses an area of commonality between Mormon ideas and generic American civil religion, it puts his opponent on the defensive, and it promotes the image of strong foreign policy leadership without committing the former governor to anything too specific.
It’s a smart move; we may see more of this during the long campaign.