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WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney’s announced trip to Israel, at the height of his campaign to wrest the presidency from Barack Obama, could be a twofer, drawing closer two critical constituencies: evangelicals and foreign policy hawks.
A Romney campaign official confirmed to JTA a New York Times story this week that Romney would travel to Israel later this summer to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
The official would not elaborate on the plans, but experts said such a trip could bridge perceived gaps between the former Massachusetts governor and two constituencies whose wariness have dogged his campaign.
Geoff Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said recent polls show that evangelicals are still concerned about Romney’s Mormon faith and his moderate gubernatorial record in a liberal Northeastern state.
“Evangelical Christians have a problem with Mormonism and that could create a shortfall,” he said. “And another way of looking at this is that it’s an opportunity to show himself in the role of a statesman – there have been articles written about his lack of foreign policy experience.”
Romney in recent days appeared eager to push back against those who question his foreign policy gravitas. At a retreat for Romney campaign fundraisers late last month, he made a point of dropping in on a session on U.S.-Israel relations and announced that he had just had an in-depth chat on Israel, Iran, Syria and Egypt with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.
Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said to expect more of the same in the coming weeks.
“I think clearly you will see a number of events over the coming weeks from the Romney people to demonstrate not only his capacity and ability to lead in the foreign policy arena but also the depth of his knowledge, Israel being one of those points,” Brooks said. Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator for Republican and Democratic administrations, said that Israel was a natural area for Romney to distinguish himself from Obama.
Miller, however, said that the two candidates differed little on Iran, the pressing Middle East issue of the day, each emphasizing the urgency of keeping the Islamic Republic from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Obama’s aggressive anti-terrorist policies make the traditional GOP ploy of depicting Democrats as weak on defense a nonstarter, he said.
“There’s not much different substantively on war and peace between Romney and Obama, and Romney cannot find a way in,” Miller said. “The notion that Romney’s predator drone is bigger than Obama’s predator drone doesn’t fly.”
But Miller said that Romney had an advantage because of his years of closeness to the Jewish state, stretching back to a friendship forged in the mid-1970s with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when both men were investment advisers in the same office in Boston.
“There is a divide on the issue of how Obama has reacted to Israel,” Miller said, referring to open tensions between Obama and Netanyahu over issues like negotiations with the Palestinians and settlement expansion. Obama “is cold and detached on many issues, deliberate and analytical, he doesn’t convey the depth of the emotional bond. I suspect Romney has detected that as an opportunity where he is instinctively more of a natural.”
It is an opportunity Republicans are already exploiting. “This upcoming visit to Israel illustrates once again the stark difference between Gov. Romney and President Obama, who has yet to visit Israel during his term in office, despite having visited a number of nearby nations not friendly to Israel, including Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement.
Few presidents have visited Israel in their first term, Democrats point out, and the fact of such a visit does not necessarily portend friendliness – Jimmy Carter visited Israel in his first and only term.
David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that Obama’s increase in defense assistance for Israel and what Israelis acknowledge as unprecedented closeness in defense cooperation, speaks for itself.
Harris noted the upcoming October joint U.S.-Israel anti-missile exercise, the biggest ever. “I’m confident that while in Israel, Gov. Romney will see first hand the unprecedented security cooperation that Barack Obama has brought to the U.S.-Israel relationship,” he said. He also noted that Obama visited Israel as a candidate in 2008. (Romney also visited Israel during that previous election cycle, participating in the 2007 Herzliya Conference.)
Israelis seemed eager to welcome Romney. The New York Times quoted Ron Dermer, a top adviser to Netanyahu, as saying that Romney is a “strong friend of Israel and we’ll be happy to meet with him.”
Romney’s visit could prove important in his efforts to appeal to Jews and pro-Israel evangelicals, said William Daroff, the Washington director for the Jewish Federations of North America and a former GOP operative.
“There is a definite perception that the Jewish vote and the pro-Israel vote are in play this election cycle,” Daroff said in an email.
Polls have suggested, however, that to the degree Jews have grown disenchanted with Obama – his Jewish approval ratings are now in the low 60s as opposed to the low 80s at the outset of his presidency – it is because of the economy.
It is among evangelicals where Romney’s visit might resonate, said David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel. “Its no mistake when conservative candidates want to appeal to the Christian base, Israel is the top issue to speak on,” Brog said.
Michael Hines, the media director for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, a Nashville-based group that conducts pro-Israel outreach among evangelicals, said a visit to Israel could help cement Romney’s relationship with the community.
“In the primaries…there was a certain reticence in the evangelical community,” Hines said. “Now that everyone has coalesced, or at least Republican evangelicals have coalesced, they see him as a contrast to Obama and there is a widespread view” among evangelicals “that Obama has not been the best friend of Israel.”
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Expansive outreach, of course, is nothing new for AIPAC. But in the wake of battles over Iran sanctions legislation that pitted the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse against the White House, many congressional Democrats and liberals more generally, AIPAC’s traditional emphasis on Israel as a bipartisan issue has taken on added urgency.
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“As we have since the beginning of the process, we continue to support Secretary Kerry’s diplomatic efforts to achieve a secure and lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman said in a statement to JTA.
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