Mitt Romney, who is planning a trip to Israel this summer, speaks before… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
In the 20th century, American politicians with ethnically diverse constituencies were advised to visit the "three I's" — Ireland, Italy and Israel. Mitt Romney is heading to the third of those countries this summer on a mission that he hopes will burnish his image with American supporters of the Jewish state. Fair enough, but in establishing his bona fides as a friend of Israel, the Republican candidate for president must be careful of what he says and promises in order to avoid creating problems in the future.
As far back as the Republican primaries, Romney has tried to capitalize on a perception that President Obama is insufficiently attentive to Israel's interests. The supposed evidence of Obama's faithlessness was his endorsement of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on Israel's 1967 borders with Jordan "with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states." Never mind that in espousing a two-state solution, Obama was echoing the policy of his Republican predecessor,George W. Bush.
Romney has also accused the president of being an unreliable ally of Israel and of "fretting" while Iran moves toward acquiring nuclear weapons. If elected, Romney says, he would "do the opposite" of Obama's policies toward Israel. (That claim inspired an Obama spokesman to ask: "Does that mean he would reverse President Obama's policies of sending Israel the largest security assistance packages in history?")
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012
Romney said at a primary debate that in his administration, "we will not have an inch of difference between ourselves and our ally Israel." After Newt Gingrich made a remark critical of Palestinians, Romney said: "Before I made a statement of that nature, I'd get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say: 'Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?'" Martin S. Indyk, a U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration, told the New York Times that Romney's comment implied that he would "subcontract Middle East policy to Israel."
We don't begrudge Romney the political benefits of affirming America's genuine friendship with Israel. But presidents have to remain independent enough to make their own foreign policy decisions; regardless of what they thought while they were campaigning, they may find that they disagree with Israeli leaders about particular policies, such as the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In seeking to demonstrate that he is a better friend to Israel than the incumbent, Romney should be mindful of the fact that in the future, a President Romney might find that Israeli and U.S. interests are more than an inch apart. He should keep that in mind when he reconnects with "my friend Bibi."