The whole campaign, Mitt Romney has used Israel as a cudgel against Barack Obama. At the foreign policy-themed debate, it was the reverse. For all the snarking on Twitter, Israel was brought up just as much as could be expected. The surprising part was who was making the attacks.
Ever since the Republican primaries began, Israel has been a focal point for the Republican national security case against Obama. That’s not just because Israel is a treasured subject for American Jews, a group that includes both donors, who do have the power to make themselves heard with the candidates, and Floridians, whose 3 percent share of the state population is maybe enough to help swing a close race (and here I obligatorily note that the debate was in Boca Raton, Florida, home of Flakowitz Bagel Inn and many a Jewish grandparent).
More importantly, Israel is a rare national security weakness: a place where Obama pledged to throw his weight around to make a difference and failed. This political reality led to the spectacle of the Republican candidate being the only person on stage to mention the Palestinians. (“Are Israel and the Palestinians closer to reaching a peace agreement? No, they haven't had talks in two years.” Obama didn’t rebut this.)
But still, all in all, Romney held back on the Israel talk. Obama brought the country up the first two times, both instances when it was not immediately apposite, as if to pre-emptively answer the inevitable onslaught. Yet Romney used it to attack Obama only twice, and both times, it was framed within the larger debate over Iran. Obama had failed to curtail the mullahs in Tehran, Romney argued, because from the get-go they sensed his weakness: “when the president said he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel, they noticed that as well,” Romney said. Later, discussing Obama’s so-called “apology tour,” which most famously included his 2009 speech in Cairo, Romney added: “You skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel.” (Obama visited Israel during his campaign in 2008; he has not gone as president.)
I am not sure why Romney held back. I don’t think hammering Obama on Israel is poor politics, except in the sense that it takes time away from discussing the economy. But in the context of an aggressive, extremely (and unusually) well-funded campaign by the Emergency Committee for Israel, the Republican Jewish Coalition, and others throughout the past 18 months to smear Obama as Israel’s foe, there is no denying that Romney actually went easy on the issue.
In fact, it was Obama who uncorked the premier Israel soundbite—really the second most memorable line of the night, after that “bayonets” business. “And when I went to Israel as a candidate,” the president said, “I didn’t take donors, I didn’t attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself—the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.”
This was unpredictable! Team Obama’s standard rebuttal to Israel-based Republican attacks has been to cite the “unprecedented” (their frequently employed word) military-to-military and intelligence cooperation that has flourished over the past four years between Israel and the United States. Obama did mention this, citing Iron Dome—the successful Israeli anti-rocket system that the U.S. has funded—and the massive joint military exercise going on, fortuitously, this week. He did not quote Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s assertion that the current administration “is doing in regard to our security more than anything that I can remember in the past,” perhaps to avoid being accused of meddling in Israeli politics as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has meddled in ours.
But this was the first time I had heard Obama accuse Romney, even implicitly, of supporting Israel disingenously. After all, to say, “When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors, I didn’t attend fundraisers,” is to say that when Romney went to Israel as a candidate, he did take donors, and he did attend a fundraiser. Which is true. (Obama also noted that he visited Sderot, the southern town frequently at the mercy of rockets launched from Gaza; he declined to note that on his trip, Romney did not.) The precise substance of Obama’s critique is vague (and don’t be shocked when some Republican claims that Obama scandalously insinuated that Romney supports Israel exclusively for the Jewish money it brings him), but the contrast is clear: Obama went because he felt he should; Romney went because he felt he needed to.
A final note on that Obama line: I really wish he had stopped after “fundraisers.” Invoking Yad Vashem and the Holocaust felt like a step too far. It’s worth noting that it is a step Israel and Yad Vashem themselves encourage you to take: you emerge from the harrowing experience of Israel’s Holocaust musuem onto a balcony that looks onto the hills outside Jerusalem—an unequivocal statement that the Holocaust’s extinguishing of so many millions of Jewish lives, cities, and cultures has culiminated in their rebirth in the Holy Land. Israel has a Holocaust memorial, but it is not itself one. But instead Obama pandered on the Holocaust, much as Romney, to a lesser extent, pandered on the Palestinians. Strange evening.