Jason Reed / Reuters
U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is recognized by pedestrians at Grosvenor Place in London, July 27, 2012, as he was forced by gridlock traffic to walk from his hotel to the Irish Embassy to meet with Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny.
TEL AVIV – After his gaffe-laden trip to London, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is probably looking forward to a warmer welcome on the next leg of his foreign tour: Israel.
Arriving in Jerusalem on Sunday, Romney is hoping the visit will highlight what he argues are the sharp contrasts between himself and President Barack Obama in their approach towards U.S.-Israeli relations, as well as Iran.
In a speech earlier this week, Romney accused Obama of "shabby treatment" of Israeli leaders, saying “the people of Israel deserve better than what they have received from the leader of the free world,” and promised to take a tougher stance against Iran.
Their differences extend to their personal relationships. The frosty relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama has created a perception that U.S.-Israeli relations have deteriorated. But Netanyahu has a warm relationship with Romney that goes back nearly 30 years, when both worked as advisers at the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s.
This will be Romney's fourth visit to Israel, his most recent was last year – when he said at a conference that Iran's leaders "represent the greatest threat to the world since the fall of the Soviet Union."
On the other hand, Obama has faced harsh criticism for not visiting Israel during his presidency, although he took a similar trip to Romney’s during the 2008 campaign. And historians note that during his two terms in the White House, Ronald Reagan never visited Israel, while George W. Bush only visited Israel in the seventh year of his presidency.
Recent polls suggest that Jewish votes in key battleground states, like Florida, are not a sure thing for Obama come November. Although Obama won 78 percent of votes among Jews in 2008, according to exit polls, that support seems to have weakened. A recent Gallup poll of voters released in June showed that 64 percent of registered voters support Obama versus 29 percent for Romney. Those votes could be critical in what may be a close race, analysts say.
On the eve of Romney’s trip, Obama signed a bill on Friday to strengthen U.S.-Israeli military ties and reassure Jewish voters of his administration’s “unshakeable commitment” to the country.
NBC News spoke with a number of Israeli and Arab analysts, as well as representatives of Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad in Israel, to get an idea of what they think of Romney’s visit. See their answers below.
How will Romney's visit affect public opinion amongst Israelis?
Shimon Schiffer, Chief Political Commentator for Yediot Ahranot, Israel’s most popular daily newspaper: They are aware of the competition between Obama and Romney. It is a dangerous and delicate situation because Netanyahu identifies with Romney and he is also very close to one of the Republican donors in the party. [He was referring to the billionaire GOP supporter Sheldon Adelson]. I don’t think that what we will see here is a healthy relationship between Israel and the White House for the Democrats. If I was in Netanyahu's position, I wouldn't ask Romney to come now.
President Barack Obama signed the U.S./Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act saying the legislation underscores America's unshakeable relationship with Israel, in an attempt at upstaging his political rival Mitt Romney who will head to the country Saturday. Sen. Joe Lieberman discusses with Andrea Mitchell.
Hillel Schenker, Democrats Abroad: The Israeli public traditionally views the Democratic Party as the American party most devoted to Israel. It was a Democratic president, Harry Truman, who welcomed the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and another Democratic President Jimmy Carter, who devoted so much presidential time and energy to facilitate the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty in 1978. Even after his visit Romney will remain an unknown quantity to the Israeli public, so his visit will not alter Israeli attitudes towards the Democratic Party.
How will Romney's visit impact voters in the U.S., especially in swing states like Florida?
Mark Zell, Republicans Abroad: While the current president was seeking to appease the Muslim world with his 2009 Cairo address and in his visits to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, he has ignored Israel in his travels and has sought to bully Israel into making concessions against its own national interests. A Romney visit will show voters who are concerned about the state of Israel that a Romney administration will revitalize the Israel-American alliance.
Hillel Schenker, Democrats Abroad: Many of them will have severe problems with Romney's opposition to choice for women, to national health care, to Warren Buffett’s proposal for raising taxes for the “one percent” (that he belongs to) while pandering to the Tea Party and Christian evangelical right.
The fact that former New York Mayor Ed Koch has declared that he will campaign for Obama in Florida will have a greater impact on Jewish voters in Florida than the visit by Romney to Israel.
Yoram Ettinger, former Minister for Congressional Affairs to Israel's Embassy in Washington, D.C.
The decision by Romney to highlight Israel as a unique ally of the U.S. will enhance his standing amongst most Americans – Christians and Jews – as evidenced by recent polls, which document increasing American support of Israel. It will have particular impact on voters in critical battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan.
How do you rate Obama's presidency with regard to relations with Israel?
Mark Zell, Republicans Abroad: The Obama administration has been the most hostile to the state of Israel. The Obama administration has not only been hostile to Israel, but dangerously inept in handling the entire region. Obama has made it a point to create "daylight" between America and its loyal Israeli allies, and a as result has left Israel isolated and twisting in the wind. Whether publicly humiliating the Israeli prime minister, or making what should be automatic vetoes of anti-Israel initiatives contingent on squeezing concessions from the Israelis, this administration has signaled to the world that it is open season on Israel.
Obama has also mishandled the entire region. He poisoned the atmosphere of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process by making untenable demands on Israel. While obsessing over housing starts in Jerusalem, he has helped facilitate the takeover of Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood, allowed the Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon and done nothing in Syria as it bloodily disintegrates and loses control of its chemical weapons arsenal. Worst of all, Obama has dithered on Iran, thinking he could make progress just through engagement. The Iranians are happy to talk with him – as they cross one red line after another on their march towards nuclear weapons.
Hillel Schenker, Democrats Abroad: He provided Israel with more security for its security needs than any previous president, $3.1 billion. And financed the ‘Iron Dome’ program which protects civilians in the Israeli south, while putting together a coalition which is using diplomacy and sanctions to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
He also declared his vision for an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace, based on the two-state solution, as a cornerstone for peace and stability in the Middle East. Candidate Romney remains an unknown quantity, so it is difficult to predict what a Romney presidency would be like.
MSNBC's Thomas Roberts talks about the Jewish vote with Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition and Jeremy Ben-Ami, President of the non-profit organization J Street.
Yoram Ettinger, former Minister for Congressional Affairs to Israel's Embassy in Washington, D.C.: Obama considers Israel to be the aggressor and the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular to be the victims. Obama does not believe in confronting rogue regimes, such as Iran, but rather engaging them in diplomacy and sanctions. Obama is the first American President who shares no affinity to Judeo-Christian values, which are cherished –according to American public opinion polls – by 80 percent of the American public.
What can Romney offer Israel that Obama has not delivered?
Hillel Schenker, Democrats Abroad: We have no idea what candidate Romney can offer Israel. Hopefully, he will not back the ideas of his major donor Sheldon Adelson, who has opposed the two-state solution concept which is at the foundation of bi-partisan Democratic and Republican approach, as well as the international community's approach.
Simon Schiffer, Chief Political Commentator for Yediot Ahranot, Israel’s most popular daily newspaper: Israelis want to hear a commitment towards Israeli security especially with regards to Iran. They also want the American embassy to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But I don’t think Romney will act differently as a president. We have to remember that cooperation between Israel and the U.S. in intelligence, security and defense has never been this high as it was during the Obama administration. But there is a difference between how to deal with the Palestinian issue and how to deal with Iran.
What are the Palestinians looking for in Romney that Obama has not delivered?
Dr. Issa Hassan Abu Zherah - Assistant Professor of Political Philosophy, Al Quds University: We know that U.S. foreign policy has its factors – the complicated elements that affect foreign policy, the three main factors are: Middle Eastern oil, free trade and the security of Israel. We know the unique relationship between Israel and the United States.
The way in which Americans will formulate their policies after the events of the Arab Spring is what is important to Palestinians…There are three main factors affecting Palestinians: Palestinians don’t believe in the peace process; secondly, they aren't happy with Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority) and have seen nothing after two decades of negotiations; thirdly, many have turned their eyes to the Islamic project. They don’t care about anything anymore…For them the American candidates are a choice between worse and worse. I think the Arab Spring will be in Palestine next.
What will Romney be discussing in his visit?
Hillel Schenker, Democrats Abroad: Essentially it will be a concentrated crash course on Middle Eastern realities today. He will be trying to accomplish in a very short time what Obama has been doing on an on-going basis throughout his presidency.
Yoram Ettinger, former Minister for Congressional Affairs to Israel's Embassy in Washington, D.C.: The recent seismic developments on the “Arab street” highlight Israel's role as the only reliable, stable, predictable, capable, democratic and unconditional ally of the U.S., which offsets the lower U.S. profile in the Middle East and expected cuts in the defense budget.
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