Mitt Romney’s planned trip to Britain, Poland and Israel beginning at the end of this week has shifted the presidential campaign debate for now from jobs, the economy and the candidates’ past to how they would deal with an increasingly fluid world.
Israel particularly has figured in the debate, with proxies for each side insisting that their candidate’s policies would better secure the Jewish state and accusing the other side of politicizing the issue for gain among Jewish voters.
Advisers to Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts governor, last week outlined the agenda for the candidate’s overseas trip during a call for the media. They kept the dates vague, but Romney is known to be planning on attending the opening of the London Olympics on Friday and a fundraising dinner in Jerusalem on Sunday night.
The emphasis in the call was on Romney as statesman rather than candidate. Advisers insisted repeatedly that the trip was more of a “listening” tour and not one in which he would announce policy initiatives.
Dan Senor, a top Middle East adviser to Romney, noted that Romney’s first Israel meeting will be with Daniel Shapiro, Obama’s ambassador to Israel (and incidentally his chief surrogate to the Jewish community in the 2008 election.)
“The focus of the trip is really about learning, listening, receiving briefings from U.S., Israeli and even Palestinian officials abroad,” Senor said, “and it’s about continuing to project Governor Romney’s strong view that American needs to stand by its allies – particularly allies under siege like Israel.”
Andrea Saul, the Romney campaign spokeswoman, said that would not keep the campaign from highlighting differences with Obama – but it would be done stateside. Romney has said in the past that he defers to the policy of not criticizing American leaders while overseas. “It is solely an opportunity to listen,” she said. “The contrast will be kept in the United States.”
In its own call on Monday, the Obama campaign challenged Romney to make clear his policy differences with the president during the tour, saying that Romney has done little other than criticize the president. Robert Gibbs, the former White House spokesman, included a gibe at Romney’s planned fundraiser in Jerusalem on Sunday evening.
“The American people require something greater from their candidates than speaking to a fundraising reception,” he said.
Gibbs and others also hammered Romney’s recent comment that on Israel he would do the “opposite” of Obama.
“What are you going to tell the Israelis in terms of doing the opposite of what Barack Obama has done?” Gibbs asked.
Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Obama whose charge was the Middle East, noted the increased U.S.-Israel defense cooperation under Obama’s watch, including Obama’s backing for enhanced Israeli missile defense systems and a forthcoming U.S.-Israel anti-missile exercise – the largest of its kind.
Romney should “say exactly what he would do that is different from what President Obama is doing,” Kahl said.
When it comes to Iran, he added, “The president has pledged to use all tools of American power to prevent Iran from getting a weapon.”
Few of Romney’s specific recommendations, particularly regarding Iran, differ from the president’s; both favor enhanced sanctions, increased isolation and a heightened U.S. Persian Gulf presence. However, Romney has suggested he would not pressure Israel, as the United States has, to play down a military option. And regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Romney has said he would not make public his differences with Israel, as Obama did in the first two years of his term.
The candidates highlighted their foreign policy stands this week in addresses to the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ national convention in Reno, Nev. Although the speeches did not stress Israel, tensions with Iran featured prominently.
“We’ve applied the strongest sanctions ever on Iran and North Korea – nations that cannot be allowed to threaten the world with nuclear weapons,” Obama said on Monday.
Romney in his speech the following day faulted the Obama administration for what he said were political leaks regarding its involvement in secret and successful anti-Iran operations coordinated with Israel.
“This conduct is contemptible,” he said. “It betrays our national interest. It compromises our men and women in the field. And it demands a full and prompt investigation, with explanation and consequence.”
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