Romney faces high stakes as he begins a series of talks with top Israeli officials and meets with the Palestinian prime minister. Mindful of polls back home that show a tight presidential contest, the former one-term governor is looking to burnish his foreign policy credentials and prove his mettle as a possible commander in chief. The trip is a chance for Romney to draw implicit contrasts with Obama and demonstrate how he would lead America on the world stage.
But Romney arrived in Jerusalem Saturday night after a difficult few days in Britain, where he made the mistake of criticizing the country’s Olympic Games and raised the hackles of his hosts. The gaffe undermined the stated goal of his weeklong journey through Britain, Israel and Poland: emphasizing America’s ties with longstanding allies.
“In a time of turmoil and peril in Israel’s neighborhood, it is important that the security of America’s commitments to Israel will be as clear as humanly possible. When Israel feels less secure in the neighborhood, it should feel more secure of the commitment of the United States to its defense,” Romney said in a Friday interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.
What he’s not doing: Specifically outlining how a Romney presidency would approach Iran’s nuclear program, the escalating civil war in Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process differently from Obama. As Romney visits, Israel’s leaders are weighing a military attack on Iran, warily watching the shaky regime in neighboring Syria and Mideast peace talks are going nowhere.
Romney has pledged not to criticize Obama while on foreign soil, honoring longstanding American tradition of leaving politics at the water’s edge. In London on Thursday, he said he also didn’t think it appropriate to discuss foreign policy while overseas.
In interviews with Israeli newspapers ahead of his arrival, Romney has both criticized Obama and commented more extensively on policy details.
“Iran is closer to nuclearization than it was when President Obama took office. It is hard to feel that the events of the last three and a half years have strengthened America’s posture and promoted the prospects of peace,” Romney told Hayom, a conservative Israeli publication bankrolled by billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. Romney was still in the U.S. when he spoke to the paper, though his remarks weren’t published until Friday, when he was already abroad.
In the interview with Ha’aretz, Romney urged caution in supporting rebel forces in Syria. He’s previously said the U.S. should do more to arm the opposition there, but reports this week say Islamist terror groups could now be an element of rebel forces, prompting caution from U.S. officials.
“I think it is important for the responsible nations of the world to seek to understand which forces in Syria represent real change, rather than the kind of destruction that might occur if al-Qaeda were to seize the development of chaos and assert leadership in some significant way in Syria,” Romney said Friday.
Romney will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a host of Israeli security officials. He’ll also meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres and the leaders of Israel’s political opposition. Romney will also hold a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, though his advisers say he didn’t have time to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
He’ll also deliver a speech in Jerusalem, where advisers say he will “lock arms” with Israel. Romney doesn’t plan to outline specific policies in the address, which he’ll make outdoors near the historic Old City.
Romney plans to spend the evening dining at Netanyahu’s home – the Israeli leader invited Romney and his wife to break the fast for the Jewish holiday Tisha B’Av. The holy day, celebrated Sunday, commemorates the destruction of two temples in Jerusalem. Romney and Netanyahu have known each other since both were young businessmen at Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s.
On Monday, Romney plans a fundraiser with top American supporters in Israel, some guests have flown in from the U.S. specifically for the event. His campaign has barred reporters from covering his comments to the 50 or so wealthy backers who will gather at the luxurious King David Hotel – all of whom will have donated $50,000 or raised at least $100,000. Keeping the remarks private is a change from how Romney handles fundraisers in the United States, where a group of reporters are allowed into events held in public spaces like hotels.
Expected among the attendees is Adelson, who has pledged to spend $100 million to defeat Obama and who has given millions to a third-party group supporting Romney’s presidency.
While Romney is left to implicit contrasts with his Democratic opponent, Obama has been focusing on Israel, signing legislation on Friday increasing military and civilian ties between the U.S. and Israel. And he authorized the release of an additional $70 million in military aid for Israel, a previously announced move that appeared timed to Romney’s trip.