Monday, July 30, 2012

Romney in Israel:
Misreading a tale of two economies

WITH THE visit to England mercifully in his rear-view mirror, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney took his campaign aircraft to Israel, the next stop in his whirlwind international tour, in search of some kind of redemption. His arrival in Tel Aviv, a visit meant to underscore the candidate’s support for Israel and to form the backdrop for tough talk about Iran, was pre-empted in masterful fashion by President Obama, who signed a U.S.-Israeli security act into law just hours before Romney touched down.

But the Israel leg of the Romney tour seemed to start out calmly, even predictably. Given the volatility of the region, and the gaffes he’s still papering over from England, predictable would have been better than anything else. Too bad it didn’t work out like that.

In almost as many days, Romney wasted an opportunity to rebrand himself and establish his campaign’s geopolitical bona fides. With boilerplate encomiums wrapped in postcard perceptions, followed by a profound misreading of the life of the region that managed to insult Israelis and Palestinians alike, the former Massachusetts governor whiffed at the plate again.

◊ ◊ ◊

The miscues started before he even got there. On the flight from London to Tel Aviv, Team Romney sent out a “closed press” notice, barring the American press corps traveling with Romney from attending a Monday fundraiser at the King David Hotel. “At U.S. events, Romney's remarks to donors in communal spaces such as hotels are typically public,” reported Kasie Hunt of The Associated Press.

Hunt, noting that Romney “sometimes has given donors more policy specifics than he includes in his standard campaign speeches,” reported that some of his contributors with the deepest pockets, including casino titan Sheldon Adelson, would attend on Monday.

Fast forward to Sunday. Team Romney does the full 180, announcing that, you know what, reporters will be allowed into the fundraiser after all.

◊ ◊ ◊

That over with, Romney took the podium in Jerusalem’s Old City for an address on Israeli-American relations and the prospect for armed confrontation with Iran.

Romney declared Jerusalem was “the capital of Israel” and said the United States has “a solemn duty and a moral imperative to deny Iran’s leaders the means to follow through on their malevolent intentions.”

“Make no mistake, the ayatollahs in Iran are testing our moral defenses. They want to know who will object and who will look the other way," he said. “We will not look away nor will our country ever look away from our passion and commitment to Israel.”

Alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (a friend of more than 35 years), Romney was as full-throated in his support of Israel as he was, previously, tepid in his assessment of England and its Olympic Games.

Romney basically abided by the unwritten rule of not criticizing U.S. foreign policy from abroad. In a pre-arrival CNN interview, responding to a question about moving the U.S. embassy, Romney said “[m]y understanding is the policy of our nation has been a desire to move our embassy ultimately to the capital (Jerusalem). I would only want to do so and to select the timing in accordance with the government of Israel.”

Kasie Hunt of The AP reports: “In his speech, Romney said Syrian President Bashar Assad 'desperately clings to power' in Damascus in the face of an attempted overthrow, but he did not call for his removal.

“He noted that Egypt is now headed by an ‘Islamist president, chosen in a Democratic election. ... The international community must use its considerable influence to insure that the new government honors the peace agreement with Israel that was signed by the government of Anwar Sadat’ more than three decades ago, he said.”

◊ ◊ ◊

A RITUAL support of abiding by existing agreements. An exceedingly careful sidestep away from the volatile embassy issue. So far, so good. Oh, one comment, when he called alluded to Israel as a “the startup nation, was mildly disconcerting, and seemingly just wrong.

Young as Israel is at 64 years old, there are a number of other countries that have been created in the decades since 1948. The phrase also suggests an improvisation of identity that would seem to be at odds with Israel’s bedrock sense of itself, its government and its place in the world.

And that crack Romney made about how “[d]iplomatic distance that is public and critical emboldens Israel's adversaries” — a swipe at the Obama administration's chafing with Israel under Netanyahu —  probably wasn’t necessary, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

Romney seemed to be holding his own until the fundraiser Monday morning at the King David Hotel. That’s when the candidate, feeling his oats at a campaign fundraiser that would raise $1 million, enraged Palestinians with a callous misperception of the tale of two economies, and how they got to be that way.

◊ ◊ ◊

“As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” he said.

“And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

A few other things. Like the disparities of opportunity that arise after years of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, economic blockades and he ever-present risk of sudden attack, like the one that killed more than 240 Palestinians as a result of Israeli air strikes on Hamas strongholds in Gaza in December 2008.

“It is a racist statement and this man doesn't realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation," said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people," Erekat said. “He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority.”

◊ ◊ ◊

WHAT MAKES this worse, what so clarifies Romney’s lack of insights into the Middle East, is his reflexive, zero-sum-game approach to currying favor with his hosts, a simplistic, Israel good-Palestinians bad calculus reflected in his speech, a conveniently pinched view that overlooks the immense complexities of the region.

“It was ludicrous,” said Howard Fineman of The Huffington Post, Monday on MSNBC. “He was doing paint-by-numbers politics, with the wrong paint and the wrong numbers. It showed he was in over his head once again … he has no idea what he’s doing. You just don’t go talk to the Likudniks at the King David Hotel and think you understand the Middle East.”

Certain Israelis weren’t entirely buying into Romney. Admitting the truth of Romney’s fulsome assessment of Israel’s progress, Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Inter-Disciplinary Center still said “you can understand this remark in several ways. You can say it’s anti-Semitic. `Jews and money.’”

◊ ◊ ◊

Other Israelis weren’t buying Romney's act at all. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak thoroughly dismantled Romney’s harsh assertions that the Obama administration has been bad for Israel.

“I think that from my point of view as defense minister they are extremely good, extremely deep and profound. I can see long years, [sic] administrations of both sides of political aisle deeply supporting the state of Israeli and I believe that reflects a profound feeling among the American people,” Barak said. “But I should tell you honestly that this administration under President Obama is doing in regard to our security more than anything that I can remember in the past.”

Barak’s view dovetails with the assessment of Israeli President Shimon Peres, who told Romney in a meeting that he is sure that the policies of the Obama administration in regards to the Iranian issue are the right ones, according to Barak David, reporting in Haaretz.

“According to Peres, the U.S. policy is to stop a nuclear Iran through the least dangerous means, but added that all options are on the table,” Haaretz reported.

◊ ◊ ◊

POLAND IS the next stop for a campaign tour that’s quickly become an embarrassment for Americans on either side of the political divide. Some Republican voters have been quick to dismiss Romney’s gaffes, saying that what’s important is still the economy. But if the trip weren’t important to Romney’s bigger strategy, they wouldn’t have bothered.

As it is, they’re down to the last leg of the trip to regain anything close to geopolitical credibility. No matter when happens in Warsaw and Gdansk, though, the Romney tour’s revealed, like nothing else could, how a candidate can’t be on message when he hasn’t fully thought the message through.

On fundraising, Team Romney still has the golden touch. But on matters of statecraft? There’s no there there. There’s even less “no there there” than we thought.

Image credits: Romney: AP videograb. Romney and Netanyahu: Reuters. Barak: State Department.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...