Jacob Heilbrunn

Mitt Romney's Nonsensical Israel Policy

How much is Sheldon Adelson worth to the Romney campaign? Mitt Romney seems determined to let no chance go by to curry favor with the Las Vegas financier. Romney's remarks in Florida that were captured on a hidden video camera about the improbability of a Middle East peace between Israelis and Palestinians caused only a brief stir. But all along Romney's stance toward Israel—and his bashing of President Obama for allegedly stiffing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—has savored of the worst kind of self-abasement.

Now Romney is attacking Obama for failing to meet privately with Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly meeting. On CBS's 60 Minutes, Romney said that it "sends a message throughout the Middle East that somehow we distance ourselves from our friends and I think the exact opposite approach is what's necessary." Distance, shmistance. Are the Saudis quaking that America is going to abandon them because Obama occasionally rebuffs Netanyahu? Are the Iranians going to draw the conclusion that America will desert Israel?

Hardly. They may have more respect for Obama's backbone, which is to say that he's not intimidated by Netanyahu's rodomontade. Anyway, what conceivable incentive does Obama have to meet with Netanyahu, who has, as far as possible, injected himself into the presidential race to try and tilt Jewish voters to support Romney even as Defense Minister Ehud Barak follows a more pragmatic line? Obama knows that if he is reelected, he can adopt an even sterner line toward Netanyahu, who has been counting on his ouster.

Netanyahu is blustering about attacking Iran and suggesting that Obama lacks the cojones to take out the mad mullahs in Tehran. But the truth is that he has not closed the sale with either his own cabinet or with Israeli voters. The idea that he could demand a red line from an American president has not diminished Obama or the Iranian threat. Instead, Netanyahu is only diminishing himself. As David Ignatius has observed in the Washington Post, no American president is going to outsource the decision of whether or not to go to war to another country's leader: "it’s precisely because Obama means what he says about going to war that he wants maximum flexibility in how and when he takes action."

Romney isn't just committing a strategic blunder in blindly backing the most retrograde forces in Israel and in decrying what he sees as a flaccid Syria policy; he's also committing a tactical one. Obama responded, "So if Gov. Romney is suggesting we should start another war, he should say so." What Obama is evoking is the specter of a return to George W. Bush, not just in the economic but also the foreign-policy sphere. Right now, Americans don't want war no more. Obama knows that. Does Romney?

It would be far shrewder for Romney to distance himself from the Bush era instead of hailing the genius of former vice president Dick Cheney (a "person of wisdom and judgment"), as he did at a recent fundraiser in Wyoming. He's catering to the worst instincts in the Republican Party. A cleverer candidate would mouth what has become the politically correct line in the GOP about restoring American prestige, while asking whether Obama's approach to China, Russia and the Middle East is actually a productive one. Is Obama really trying to contain China, or he is he creating the specter of containment—thereby creating the worst of all worlds? What is his plan for dealing with Egypt? Can America continue to allow Israel what amounts to carte blanche in avoiding peace talks and expansion of settlements in the West Bank—or is this approach, in fact, inflaming tensions in the Middle East? How would Romney restructure the American military?

Nevertheless, with only a few weeks left until the election, it's probably a mistake for Romney to talk about foreign affairs at all, an area in which Obama has, by and large, cleaned up the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan that were left behind by the George W. Bush administration. On Israel, it is Netanyahu, not Obama, who is poisoning the relationship. As Ari Shavit, a columnist for Haaretz, has observed

Netanyahu not only argued with Obama, but turned himself into the declared enemy of many of Israel's friends in the United States. He pushed himself into America's extremist right corner - he pushed all of us into it.

In pandering to Israel, Romney is not strengthening his credentials to become commander-in-chief. He's undermining them.