Mitt Romney has made some doozy campaign statements on foreign policy. But none seems to be more over the top than his assertion in Tampa that President Obama has thrown Israel “under the bus.”
The Republican nominee’s comment poses an intriguing question.
Is his pro-Israeli rhetoric a result of expedient, in-the-moment campaign rhetoric or does it reflect a deeper sentiment that could make Mitt Romney the most pro-Israeli Republican president ever?
First things first. Is Romney’s assertion accurate? The answer on that one is emphatically no. I’ve been a part of five administrations beginning with Ronald Reagan and seen some pretty heavy duty fights between the US and Israel; and no American president has ever (or will ever) throw Israel under the bus. Indeed, particularly on the security side, American presidents give the Israelis major leeway and latitude.
And even if they didn’t, no Israeli leader, if faced with an imminent existential threat, would allow American interests to dominate or deter them.
Romney was clearly referring to Iran’s nuclear program when he made his comment. Israel will certainly factor in American thinking on this issue. But whatever Barack Obama’s views on the wisdom of an Israeli military strike, the Israelis will eventually act, or not, based on their own calculations. Indeed, they’d ignore Obama in a heartbeat if necessary.
That said, I’ve argued that Obama is different. Part of it is generational. He grew up after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in a university environment where the Arab-Israeli conflict wasn’t Paul Newman in the movie Exodus, where the Arabs were the Indians and the Israelis were the cowboys. His sensibilities leaned toward the underdog, in his view the Palestinians.
Combined with a tendency to see the conflict through the more detached unemotional filter of American national interests, Obama doesn’t have the instinctive emotional attachment to Israel of a Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. He’s not in love with the idea of Israel as the others; but he’s also not as Romney’s statement implies. for political reasons alone, prepared to willfully harm the Israelis. In fact, during his first term, Israeli-American security cooperation has gotten closer.
So what kind of position would Romney take on Israel if he actually became president. First let’s be clear. On the political side, Republican presidents tend to be tougher on the Israelis in part because they have less of a political stake. Most Jews are Democrats. Even Ronald Reagan —who was instinctively as pro-Israeli as any America president ever was — wrestled with Israeli Prime Minister Begin on Lebanon and the peace process. He actually withheld the delivery of F-16 fighter aircraft over Israel’s decision to extend administrative law to the occupied Golan Heights. Nixon threatened sanctions too and Bush 41 denied Israel loan guarantees because of settlements.
Romney would begin his presidency with some strong pro-Benjamin Netanyahu (they’re long-time friends) assumptions and instincts. Clearly, unless there was some reason to push the peace process — a crisis or an opportunity generated by the locals — he’d steer away from that issue as long as he could. He’d ignore the settlements issue. On combating efforts to isolate Israel at the UN, he’d be no tougher than Obama has been.
On Iran, he’d be personally sympathetic to the notion of bombing before accepting an Iranian bomb; but both on an Israeli strike, and one by the US, he’s a new president who would have to listen to his security, military and intelligence experts who’ll be much more cautious. Still regardless of who becomes president, the US will face a big decision later this year, or early next on what to do about the Iranian nuclear program.
The fact is, with the exception of the peace process that isn’t, Romney’s policies toward Israel would be much more rhetorically supportive but not that much different than Obama’s. The tone of the relationship would change — more warmth and good cheer — but I would bet that within a year Netanyahu will find some way to begin to annoy even his best friend Mitt Romney.
Obama may have wanted to reset the US special relationship with Israel, or at least make it less exclusive. He couldn’t. Romney may want to become the most pro-Israeli American president ever. That’s not going to happen either.
Chances are Romney will follow in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps on this one. A combination of strong pro-Israeli sentiments and convictions on Romney’s part will confront regional realities, Israeli willfulness and the need to protect American interests. And in the end, it will be a close relationship with more than a few large potholes and bumps in the road.
Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He was formerly an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President? will be published by Random House this year.