Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, board a plane in London bound for Israel, where… (Charles Dharapak, Associated…)
JERUSALEM — Mitt Romney has rarely missed an opportunity to argue that he would be a better friend to Israel than President Obama.
He has pounded the president on the issue of Iran, saying he has failed to champion sanctions crippling enough to prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon. He has accused Obama of speaking at the United Nations as if "our closest ally in the Middle East was the problem." And he has spoken in glowing and deferential terms of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — "Bibi," as he referred to him — whose frictions with Obama have at times burst into the open.
With those statements, Romney has pressed the argument that Obama has not been tough or resolute enough in protecting U.S. and Israeli interests. But, as he arrives in Israel this weekend for meetings with its leaders, Romney's campaign also hopes his message and presence will appeal to evangelical voters who identify with Israeli interests and to Jewish voters, who overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008.
To buttress his effort, the Republican Jewish Coalition plans to launch a $6.5-million campaign Monday in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida focusing on "buyer's remorse" among Jewish voters who backed Obama.
Matthew Brooks, the group's executive director, cited as "deeply troubling" several Obama positions, including his suggestion last year that negotiations about a Palestinian state should reflect borders that existed before Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.
But others question whether Romney's visit to Israel and his rhetoric will have much effect in November. Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic strategist, said the state of the Middle East on election day will be more important — particularly if the Syrian conflict spills over its borders.
"If Jews feel Israel is in danger, more of them will vote for Mitt Romney. If not, more will vote for Barack Obama," said Sheinkopf, who recently returned from a two-week trip to Israel.
So far Romney's persistent gestures toward Israel don't seem to have moved the needle dramatically in his direction. A Gallup tracking poll released Friday, on the eve of Romney's arrival in Israel, showed that 68% of Jewish voters favored Obama, compared with the 78% exit polls showed he received in 2008. Romney was favored by 25%.
Though the campaign has played up Romney's decades-long friendship with Netanyahu — they worked together at the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s — the Gallup survey showed the prime minister was most popular among Republicans, who are already likely to vote for Romney. Overall, 41% of those surveyed had no opinion of the Israeli leader at all.
Romney's rocky international debut last week in London, where he was blistered for raising questions about British preparedness for the Olympic Games, has put him under considerable pressure to have a flawless appearance in Israel. In addition to Netanyahu, Romney will meet Sunday in Jerusalem with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz, and Labor Party leaders Shelly Yachimovich and Isaac Herzog, as well as Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Romney is also under scrutiny for visiting during Tisha B'av, which commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. In recognition of the holiday, Romney will attend a traditional breaking of the fast at Netanyahu's home after sundown Sunday. His speech in Jerusalem that evening — which will focus on the shared threats facing Israel and the United States — will also be in keeping with the solemnity of the day, said Dan Senor, Romney's senior policy advisor who helped plan the Israel trip.
Senor said Friday that the holiday — anchored in tragedy, survival and perseverance — would provide a backdrop for "a fitting set of themes and ideas given the threat and challenges both Israel and America face today."
For months, Obama's campaign has vigorously pushed back against the suggestion that the president could have done more to support Israel, noting that he has been generous in providing Israel aid and expensive cutting-edge military hardware.
To drive that point home, Obama signed a measure Friday to strengthen U.S. security ties with Israel by enhancing cooperation on missile defense and missile sharing. In a dart that seemed directed at Romney, Obama said the legislation illustrated "all the outstanding cooperation that we have seen really at an unprecedented level."
Meanwhile, Obama's campaign has challenged Romney to outline clearer policy differences between himself and the president during his trip if he intends to use Israel to attract voters. Though Romney has criticized the president's tone and approach, so far he has not spelled out any dramatic policy shifts.