Mitt Romney shaking hands with President Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, January 13, 2011. (Photo: Handout/Getty Images)
This week Mitt Romney raised British eyebrows — and hackles — with several gaffes that undermined the objective of his trip to London: to boost his limited to nonexistent foreign policy credentials.
Romney “must wish he was already on the next stop of his foreign tour, in Jerusalem, where he will undoubtedly be getting better treatment than he has so far on his initial visit to London,” Anshel Pfeffer opined in Haaretz on Thursday as one Romney misstep after another was reported in the British press.
In telling NBC News’ Brian Williams that there had been “disconcerting” omens about the London Olympics such as “stories about the private security firm not having enough people,” the presumptive Republican presidential nominee may have been gearing up for the Israel-based stop on his foreign policy muscular mastery tour. While Romney may have been referring to the scandals surrounding G4S, the private security firm accused of failing to live up to its £284 million contract to provide security for the London Olympics, his criticism of British stewardship at the 2012 Olympics will play well to Israelis who have been offended by the Olympic Committee’s reaction to their special requests.
Indeed, Israelis have been angered that the International Olympic Committee once again turned down a decades-old request for a moment of silence during the opening ceremonies in memory of 11 Israeli athletes killed in a terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics in 1972. President Obama endorsed the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the massacre (immediately denounced as a “politicizing” ploy by Obama critics on the right) as did Romney a few days days later. According to Friday morning reports from London, the British Zionist Federation organized an off-site and virtual event that attracted 200 attendees to the Israeli Embassy in London and another 20,000 in different venues around the city. There is no media mention yet as to whether Romney was among them.
The revelation last week that Olympic swimmers from Israel were not being provided with special security at their training camp in Corby, a town two hours from London, also provoked outrage in the Israeli press, particularly in light of the bus bombing at the Burgas Airport in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists. The British organizers insisted that the security provided to all Olympic participants was sufficient, and other Israeli athletes said they felt safe in London and the Olympic Village. The alleged security lapse in Corby reportedly was exposed only after a greater level of protection for the Israeli swimmers was in place. Romney’s jab at British security arrangements for the Olympics, to which Prime Minister David Cameron and the British press took exception, will no doubt be taken as another sign of his concern for Israelis.
Romney’s arrival in Israel on Saturday will follow a five day get-out-the-Republican-vote drive in Jerusalem in mid-July, launched by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC). Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s press secretary, and Matt Brooks, RJC’s Executive Director, have been desperately trying to entice the 77% of Jewish Americans who traditionally vote Democrat to join the Romney camp. The nearly 164,000 American Jews and dual nationals who make their homes in Israel tend to be more religious — and more politically conservative — than their non-expat coreligionists in the US, and reportedly vote Republican by a 3 to 1 margin. The RJC estimates that there are 150,000 potential voters in Israel who could swing the 2012 election in Romney’s favor. Romney’s Israel visit is the crown jewel of the RJC campaign, which targets not only the third largest American expatriate community in the world (Canada and Mexico rank first and second, the UK ranks fourth), but Jewish voters in the US, as well as evangelical Christians who harbor doubts about Romney.
Ironically, the RJC’s prospects for success have been enhanced by measures implemented by the Obama administration in 2009 that make it easier for Americans living abroad to vote. While Republican governors are doing everything they can to make voting more complicated and difficult in their own states such as implementing increasingly bureaucratic registration procedures and more stringent voter ID laws, the voting rights of the 6.32 million Americans living abroad are protected by the Federal Voting Assistance Program. Expats, some of whom may never have lived in the US, can quickly and easily register to vote and get an absentee ballot via a secure and user friendly website. The absentee ballot can be printed out, filled in, then scanned and emailed or snail-mailed back to election officials in the last state of residence.
The RJC drive to amass votes for Romney in Israel points to an emerging paradox of which the RJC hopes to take advantage; it is now easier than ever for Americans living abroad to vote in a US election while an increasing number of obstacles confront American voters who live on US soil. In other words, block the vote here, rock the vote there!
While Ed Sanders of the LA Times anticipates that Israelis will take Romney’s visit “in stride” and “with a grain of salt,” the fulsome advance coverage and interviews abroad published thus far in the Israeli press strongly hint that it will fall upon the foreign press corps to provide any critical coverage of Romney’s 36 hours in Israel. It’s not surprising that casino magnate and GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom (Israel Today) — Israel’s largest circulation daily (because it’s free) — has nothing but effusive praise for Romney and undisguised contempt for the US president. Current headlines include “Romney to Israel Today : Israel Deserves Better Treatment than it’s Getting from Obama” and “The Opposite of Obama” by Michael Goldfarb.
Even the writers for the more literary and reputedly “liberal” Haaretz are gaga-eyed and oozing with starstruck praise for the GOP presidential contender for his looks as much as what they surmise are his policies. Ari Shavit gushes:
…he is devoting half an hour of his time to me, removing his jacket and shaking my hand, and giving me a big smile. He says a few words about the surprising heat in England, asks what’s going on in Israel. He radiates old-fashioned American warmth…When I observe the tall, handsome man who is answering my questions so cautiously, I have a feeling that the drama surrounding him is even bigger than he is.
Such praise is rarely rendered in the US press, even by Romney’s biggest fans. But it is not that different from the characterization of Romney in Israel Hayom: “Romney is a soft-spoken man. Up close he looks like a movie star: tall, graying at the temples and tanned. He definitely has the presidential look.” Translation: Romney doesn’t look like that half-schvartza the Democrats are trying to re-elect.
Meanwhile, Haaretz political reporter Barak Ravid, whose ear never tends to be far from the whispers of Netanyahu government insiders, insinuates that President Obama’s signing of United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act a day before Romney’s arrival in Israel is deliberately intended to upstage his GOP rival and steal his thunder. However, the legislation was passed by Congress just last week. (Had Obama signed the legislation any sooner, the same criticism would have applied. If Obama had for any reason put off signing the legislation until next week, there is no doubt that the Israeli media, and Romney, would have attributed the postponement to the President’s purported hostility toward Israel.)
That Iran must be prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapon will be the easiest point about which Netanyahu and Romney will agree. Romney has already hinted that he approves of a US strike against Iran ahead of his Israel visit. Nevertheless, political strategists, as Ed Sanders notes, are predicting that Romney will face “challenges and minefields when dealing with the specifics of how he would restart peace talks, prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb and respond to Israeli calls to release imprisoned American spy Jonathan Pollard.” However, in advance interviews with the GOP candidate, Israeli journalists have thus far not been holding Romney’s platitudinous responses to a particularly high standard of scrutiny and specificity on these issues.
Beyond his inability to offer policy prescriptions that differ substantially from the status quo, there are other potential pitfalls that also lay ahead for Romney this weekend due to the awkward scheduling of his Israel trip, which coincides with the Jewish observance of the Ninth Day of Av, a fast day second in importance only to the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) for observant Jews. This has necessitated, as many press reports have noted, the rescheduling of what was to have been a Saturday night fundraiser to the Monday morning before Romney’s departure for Poland. With a $50,000 per couple minimum entry fee, only about 20-30 guests are expected, among whom may be Sheldon Adelson himself. Adelson is on the RJC’s Board of Directors.
Interestingly, no one seems to have noticed how scheduling details of the trip might affect Romney’s stated plan to visit the “Western Wall”, or the reception he will receive there if he does. After spending much of the day at the Olympics on Saturday, Romney is scheduled to arrive in Israel that afternoon. Will he offend local sensibilities by showing up at the Western Wall (camera crew in tow) on the Jewish Sabbath? Or will he wait until Sunday, when the Ninth of Av, which actually falls on Saturday this year, will be observed by traditional Jews since fasting and mourning are prohibited on the Sabbath. Over a hundred thousand people customarily squeeze into the Western Wall plaza to lament the Temple’s destruction. Will Romney attempt to join them (camera crew in tow) or request that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remove them? Either way, he is courting the risk of being pelted with stones by frock-coated, black-hatted, ultra-orthodox worshippers. Not exactly the kind of photo op that a presidential candidate could use to woo Jewish voters with.