Taken at face value, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s comments during his recent trip to Israel might seem alarming. But in fact almost all of them are boilerplate American campaign rhetoric.
Romney’s trip demonstrates the extent to which Israel has become an indispensable prop in the theatrics of American politics. It is de rigueur for ambitious American politicians, particularly on the right, to make at least one pilgrimage to Israel to demonstrate undying commitment to a set of bromides about the special relationship between the two countries.
In the short run, obviously, this is very useful to the Israelis. It is a demonstration that Israel actually functions as a domestic political consideration reflecting the balance of power within American society between competing interests that must be accommodated by any successful politician, rather than an aspect of foreign policy. There is an enormous set of American constituencies—Jewish, Evangelical Christian, hawkish conservative, neoconservative, liberal, trade unionist and so forth—that take unconditional support for Israel as axiomatic to their worldview. On the other side, there’s a disorganized mass of Arab and Muslim Americans, fringe leftists, marginal paleoconservative isolationists, and foreign policy experts and academics who actually know better.
To call it a mismatch would be an understatement. The bottom line is there is no cost whatsoever for doing your utmost to outbid any opponent on adoration of all things Israel and no benefit whatsoever to doing otherwise. So for a politician like Romney, going to Israel and making a series of fantastically one-sided, and in many cases indefensible, statements during a campaign is a no-brainer. This included a snide, uncalled-for insult against the Palestinian people that suggested they were culturally inferior to the Israelis because of their impoverishment, without recognizing the onerous restrictions of the occupation.
In the long run, however, Israelis may come to regret the centrality they are beginning to play in American domestic political life. Love affairs can end badly and bitterly. Some of their most passionate American supporters, such as some Evangelical Christians, plainly do not have the best interests of the Israeli state in mind and actually support the settlement movement. The term “Christian Zionist” is an obvious misnomer if ever there was one.
Romney’s remarks in Jerusalem failed to mention the words “Palestinian,” “two-state solution” or anything whatsoever acknowledging the need for peace. Instead, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been doing, Romney changed the subject entirely to the question of Iran. Some Israelis are probably delighted by this. However, the Palestinian issue isn’t going to go away because politicians don’t care to mention it.
And more dangerously still, one of the few eventualities whereby the special relationship between Israel and the United States might actually be severely undermined is if the American public comes to feel that it has been dragged or pushed by Israel into a conflict with Iran that goes very badly. These are dangerous waters for the US-Israel relationship, given the potential for unintended or unanticipated and extremely negative consequences.
It’s also vital to bear in mind that Romney hasn’t actually gone further than other presidential candidates during general elections on, for example, the sensitive subject of Jerusalem. George W. Bush, it should be remembered, declared in 1999 that he would move the US Embassy to Jerusalem on the day he was inaugurated. Of course, like all other presidents before and since, he invoked the presidential waiver keeping the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, where it’s going to remain. Romney didn’t even go that far, merely saying he would like to see the embassy moved to Jerusalem. An unhelpful comment to be sure, but hardly surprising or unprecedented.
Romney didn’t ignore the Palestinians altogether, since he did meet with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. But exactly what they discussed isn’t publicly known. Fayyad is on record several times in recent months saying the Palestinian cause has “never been more marginalized,” and Romney’s Israel visit seems to confirm the accuracy of this diagnosis.
But for all of his efforts to bond with the Israeli right, appeal to its American Jewish and Evangelical Christian supporters, and court sympathetic donors, if elected, Romney’s policies would undoubtedly default to the standard American positions. America might end up with a new CEO, but it will still face the same fundamental equation in the Middle East.
Whether it is led by Obama or Romney, American policy will be still guided by an unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, support for a two-state solution, Jerusalem as a final status issue and keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv, and dealing with the leadership in Ramallah and not Hamas. And sooner or later, even if most Israeli and American politicians would like it to go away, the Palestinian issue will eventually reassert itself as absolutely unavoidable.