On Monday I wrote a post arguing that irrespective of who wins the presidential election in November, American policy toward Israel is unlikely to change very much. My friend Gabe Scheinmann (whose previous guest post differed with me on which side is politicizing the Israel debate) is now here to present an opposing view, since he believes that I have downplayed the differences between Obama and Romney when it comes to Israel policy.
Michael argues that, outside of rhetorical flourish intended for the election season, the sole policy difference with regards to Israel between a Romney Administration and a second Obama term is the “limited exception of what threshold will trigger [U.S.] military action against Iran”. While I respect Michael’s analysis, I have to say that the differences between the two are far, far starker. Whether it be the U.S. approach to the peace process, the status of Jerusalem, relations with regional countries, or dealing with Iran, the policy priorities and principles between the two potential leaders will be vastly different.
First, I concede that, under Obama, the military relationship has strengthened, mostly attributable to the nearly $300mil the Administration has granted to Israel to purchase additional Iron Dome batteries. While this is absolutely commendable, I would surmise that this would have also occurred during a hypothetical McCain Administration and would continue under Romney as well. Moreover, while this is my own opinion, the rhetorical echo chamber nurtured by both the White House and the Israeli government when it comes to security ties has been a way for both governments to claim “Situation Normal” without having to add the AFU part. The nature of military-to-military ties makes it difficult for Congress, interest groups, or the public to know what is concrete and what isn’t. By touting “the closest ever” security ties, both sides are able to mask the deep political and diplomatic problems that do exist.
First, on Iran. The difference between “nuclear weapon capability”, which is the Romney and Israeli position, and a “nuclear Iran”, which is the Obama position, is drastic. While Michael admits that this is the sole point of difference, I think that he undervalues the importance of the difference, which could be a multi-year window for the U.S., a multi-month window for Israel. Moreover, while Obama’s efforts have been focused on constraining, preventing, and even preemptively condemning potential unilateral Israeli military action, the Romney campaign has now said that it will “respect” Israeli action should it come to that. Lastly, Romney supports aiding the Iranian opposition in an attempt to remove the current regime, a notable contrast with the president, who was notoriously silent at the most opportune moment in 2009 for such support. Put simply, Obama’s Plan A is negotiations/sanctions, Plan B is simply “trust me” a few years from now. If he burns your trust, it’s too late. Romney’s Plan A is negotiations/sanctions/regime change from within or “trust me” a few months from now. If he burns your trust, it is still not too late to act unilaterally.
Second, on the West Bank portfolio. On settlements, Obama believes that Jerusalem, including the Old City, is a settlement and should be treated no differently than everything else in the West Bank. The Administration does not believe that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. (Note: One could still not move the Embassy, state that final borders are subject to negotiation, but still believe that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. The Administration has gone out of its way to not do that.) Romney believes that Jerusalem is not a settlement and that it is Israel’s capital. That is a fairly significant difference. Romney has been silent on West Bank settlements, a marked contrast with Obama who made it the focus of his Israel policy for nearly a year, souring the U.S.-Israel relationship and setting back Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Whereas Obama has endorsed the Palestinian negotiating position (Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel and is subject to negotiation, borders (not negotiations on borders, but borders) should be based on the 1949 armistice (he called them 1967 lines), Romney issued no such positions and condemned the president for doing so. Whereas Romney has promised to defund the Palestinian Authority if it enters into a unity government with Hamas or seeks unilateral statehood recognition at the UN, the Obama Administration has gone to great lengths to keep bankrolling the PA, even though Abu Mazen has crossed both those red lines. It also upgraded the diplomatic representation of the Palestinian mission very early on.
Third, Obama and Romney regional policies would be different with different effects on Israel. The Obama Administration has excluded Israel from the first two meetings of a new major counterterrorism forum, has endorsed a conference statement calling for Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, has pushed Israel to apologize to Turkey for the flotilla affair, and has given Turkey a veto on Israeli participation in NATO exercises. Moreover, while it swiftly called for Mubarak, a longtime American and Israeli ally, to step down in the wake of domestic protests, it resisted doing the same in Iran, an American and Israeli enemy, despite its more brutal oppression and troublemaking.
Fourth, the semiotics of Obama’s approach to Israel have been somewhere between wrong-footed, disingenuous, and appalling. The president snubbed the democratically elected Israeli leader at the White House two years ago, denying him a perfunctory photo-op and abandoning him to eat dinner with his family, equated the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering, visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, but not Israel, made his first foreign phone call as president to PA president Abu Mazen, and purposefully put “daylight” between the two countries, as he openly told Jewish leaders. In contrast, Romney has promised to make Israel his first foreign visit.
To conclude, the differences between the two men’s policies are glaring. On Iran, Romney has said that he respects an Israeli strike if it comes to that, but more importantly the threshold for what constitutes as “unacceptable” is a lot lower than what Obama has said. On the Palestinians, the two men see Jerusalem, settlements, and the basis of negotiations in far different lights. Overall, whereas Obama believes that the best way to stop an Iranian nuclear program and to increase U.S. popularity in the Arab world is to loosen its political support of Israel, Romney believes that only by tightening the U.S.-Israel relationship will the U.S. stop the Iranian nuclear drive and enhance Arab-Israeli peacemaking. (The Obama Administration even elevated Palestinian-Israeli peace to a U.S. “vital national security interest”.) The evidence suggests that a Romney Administration’s Israel policy would represent a distinct departure from the policies of the last four years.