Gabe Scheinmann wrote a great guest post last week responding to my contention that U.S. policy toward Israel is going to remain largely the same irrespective of who wins the election in November. In short, Gabe argues that there is a world of difference between Obama and Romney and that it will have a significant impact on U.S. policy regarding Iran, the peace process, and Mideast regional politics and security. I don’t disagree with Gabe that Obama and Romney have different views on various issues related to Israel, but I think where Gabe goes awry is in his contention that it’s going to matter for U.S. policy. Looking at what has gone on under Obama and the history of presidential candidates and campaigns saying things that get walked back later on (including by Romney just last week), I think that a Romney administration will hew to much the same line that the Obama administration has.
On Iran, Gabe argues that the difference between the U.S. drawing a red line at nuclear capability versus drawing a red line at a nuclear weapon is a drastic one, and that by taking the former position Romney is aligned with the Israeli stance. Gabe also thinks that Romney’s position means that the U.S. is looking at a multi-month window, rather than multi-year window under Obama, to strike Iran. There are, however, a couple of factors that Gabe is overlooking. First, we don’t know that the U.S. and Israel are necessarily in agreement as to how long before Iran develops nuclear capability; the British estimate is that Iran is two years away from nuclear capability, while Israeli officials have at times estimated that Iran is only months away. If U.S. intelligence agencies are in line with the British view, then it means we are still looking at a multi-year window for U.S. action. Second, Gabe claims that the Romney campaign has said he will “respect” an Israeli decision to unilaterally attack Iran and he contrasts this with Obama’s efforts to prevent Israel from launching at attack, but Gabe must know that this is misleading. The link that he provides for the “respect” claim is an article detailing how the Romney campaign walked back aide Dan Senor’s respect position – widely interpreted as giving Israel a green light – just hours after he made it, and instead clarified that Romney simply “recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself.” The idea that Obama is constraining the Israelis from striking Iran but that Romney would tell them to go right ahead, or even assist them in doing so, is one that was consciously contradicted by the Romney campaign. As I wrote in my original post, the difference between capability and an actual weapon is a real one, but the effect this has on what actions the U.S. will take and when is not as large as Gabe suggests.
On the issue of the West Bank and the peace process, Gabe says that Obama does not believe that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and that Romney does, and that Obama has endorsed the Palestinian position on negotiations with regard to Jerusalem and borders and that Romney has not. Again, this is a highly selective reading of events. Much like Romney now, when Obama was a candidate in 2008 he famously said that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” and when he attracted a storm of criticism for the “undivided” part of the comment, he walked back that portion but pointedly did not refute the part of the comment calling Jerusalem the capital of Israel. Once in office, his administration’s official position was the exact same as literally every president before him since – including George W. Bush, widely seen as the most pro-Israel president in history – that Jerusalem’s final status should be subject to negotiations. This is, in fact, the position that Israel agreed to when it signed the Oslo Accords, so when Gabe refers to this as the Palestinian position in negotiations, it is unclear to me why he implies that Israel has never agreed to negotiation Jerusalem’s final status. It is also unclear to me why Gabe believes that Romney will be the first president in history to overturn the U.S. position on Jerusalem, and why he thinks that Romney is not doing the exact same thing that Obama did when campaigning in 2008. On the issue of borders, Netanyahu issued a joint statement with Hillary Clinton in November 2010 using the phrase “1967 lines, with agreed swaps,” which is the same formulation Obama has used. It is also the same position that the U.S. and Israel have taken in every single negotiation with the Palestinians during the Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations, so I’d again be curious to know why Gabe thinks Romney will do things differently. This is furthered by the fact that the Romney campaign website is completely silent on this issue and Romney has, as Gabe note, “issued no such positions” because he has been silent on specifics with regard to Israel, instead relying on empty platitudes. This is not a coincidence, since Romney does not want to upset Jewish voters but also does not want to box himself in by taking positions he will have to repudiate in office. No matter what Romney believes, the fact is that if he wades into the peace process morass, he is – like every president before him irrespective of party – also going to endorse the 1967 lines with swaps and refuse to prejudice the outcomes of negotiations over Jerusalem.
Finally, on the issue of the approach to Middle East regional issues, Gabe says that Obama has excluded Israel from the new Global Counterterrrorism Forum, although I would direct my readers to Zvika Krieger’s excellent reporting on the subject which makes clear that this has nothing to do with the administration trying to isolate Israel. Gabe also contends that Israel is being sold out to placate Turkey, but his claim about allowing Turkey to block Israel from the recent NATO summit is incorrect (as I have written about before), not to mention that I don’t think Gabe would suggest that the U.S. not attend NATO summits if Turkey does indeed exercise its right under the NATO bylaws to block non-members from attending. It should also be pointed out that Israel has never once attended a NATO summit in its history, so the idea that this can be pinned on Obama and that Romney would somehow change that is quite a stretch. Similarly, I think it is questionable to imply, as Gabe does, that the decision not to back Egypt’s autocratic dictator once the handwriting was on the wall was directed at Israel and that Romney would have done things differently.
In sum, Gabe is undoubtedly correct that differences exist between Romney and Obama, but I think he overstates the extent to which this will affect much of anything. Unless you think that Romney is going to upend the bipartisan consensus on the peace process that has existed for decades, or that he is going to destroy ties with Turkey rather than trying to work a middle ground that preserves the relationship with Israel while simultaneously preserving the relationship with another important regional ally, what we are left is with a difference on Iran, but one that still puts Romney at odds with the Israeli position. I am on board with the notion that Romney’s rhetoric and even personal convictions on Israel are more friendly toward Israel than Obama’s, but despite making a host of important points, I don’t think Gabe meets the burden of proof in demonstrating that this will ultimately matter when it comes to U.S. policy.