Rob Lattin is Jspace News' Foreign Affairs Correspondent. In addition to covering foreign affairs for Jspace, Rob is a blogger on Israeli and Middle Eastern foreign policy for the Foreign Policy Association, as well as a freelance writer. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mitt Romney recently completed a three-country tour in what was widely seen as an attempt to boost his foreign policy credentials for the upcoming presidential election. Romney made a stop in Israel, and his visit was marred by controversy. First, the clear goal was not to raise his foreign policy acumen, but to raise money. Second, Romney basically said that Israelis are culturally superior to Palestinians and that Palestinian culture is to blame for their current economic predicament. And third, Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu’s interactions during the trip were unprecedented.
Unfortunately, with each US election, the amount of money needed to become president increases substantially and Romney’s trip to Israel is largely seen in that backdrop. The Republican candidate held a fundraiser in Jerusalem during his stay, which required a $50,000 donation just to attend. The front seat was of course filled by the event’s host Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire Las Vegas guru and staunch Netanyahu supporter. Adelson has stated that he will donate $100 million to the Romney campaign in order to remove Barack Obama from office. For a good laugh, check out Sarah Silverman’s rebuttal to his $100 million statement.
While mega-fundraising has become part of the election game, one couldn’t help but feel there was something particularly slimy about the fundraiser. Maybe it was because it took place in Israel, a land I equate with spirituality and Jewish pride, or maybe it’s because Adelson’s and Netanyahu’s attempts at political influence in this election is nauseating. As Barak Ravid of Haaretz said about Romney’s speech, “[t]he speech itself sounded as if it could have been written by Netanyahu's bureau.” Thomas Friedman also made a timely and important comment (for the first time in a long time):
“Why didn’t they just do the whole thing in Las Vegas? I mean, it was all about money anyway — how much Romney would abase himself by saying whatever the Israeli right wanted to hear and how big a jackpot of donations Adelson would shower on the Romney campaign in return. Really, Vegas would have been so much more appropriate than Jerusalem. They could have constructed a plastic Wailing Wall and saved so much on gas.”
When I see a possible future president of the United States in Israel, our closest ally, who also has plenty of foreign policy question marks surrounding him, the last thing I want the visit to be comparable to is Las Vegas—the city of unnecessary gambling and sin.
During his stay Romney called the Palestinians inferior. I don’t know what he was thinking, or his advisors if they knew what he would be saying, but making comments about whole populations that allude to cultural inferiority likely won’t get you points in the popular vote. At his King David Hotel fundraiser Romney said, “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.”
“And that exists also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador; Mexico and the United States,” Romney added. The kicker was when he also made mention of “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” noting that its author had made the point about culture and how it “makes all the difference.”
“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,” said the GOP candidate.
Again, what was he thinking? No one would disagree with him if he had gotten up there and said, “I’m really impressed with Israel’s economic progress since its inception. I believe it’s directly related to their values of democracy, capitalism, and innovation, and their ability to overcome adversity, and I wish the Palestinians could replicate. I understand that the situation is complex, and that certain Palestinian choices and political stances have hindered their ability to move forward.” Not many would disagree with that. I would even give him a pass for not openly acknowledging Israel’s involvement in Palestine’s economic hardship; mostly, that it could be stimulating the West Bank economy much more than it is doing. But what is just ludicrous is the idea that the Palestinians are in their predicament because of their culture. The Jews of all people should know how that sounds: ignorant and alarming. Romney might have pleased his extreme right supporters, but he was heavily criticized by most US and international editorialists and media outlets.
Then there were the direct interactions between Mitt and Bibi. Both rolled the red carpet out for each other. Mitt said all the right things for the Likud supporters, from proclaiming Jerusalem as the capital of Israel to giving his unconditional support for Israel to explore all options in regards to Iran. And like a good politician he refrained from giving direct approval of an attack, both by the US or Israel. However, in what felt almost staged, Romney foreign policy advisor and co-author of the famous book “Start-Up Nation,” Dan Senor claimed that Romney would be okay with Israel launching a unilateral attack on Iran. Of course Romney’s camp clarified the comments and distanced themselves from them. But the message felt sincere and not like a gaffe or rogue comment.
Romney’s behavior was predictable of a presidential candidate, but Bibi’s was unprecedented. In the same Barak Ravid article cited earlier, the writer states:
“In general, Netanyahu embraced Romney as no Israeli prime minister has ever before embraced a candidate running against an incumbent US president: Aside from their working meeting in the morning, Netanyahu also hosted Romney and his wife and sons for dinner at his official residence.
“Romney’s entire visit to Israel was born in the Prime Minister’s Office. According to Tablet Magazine, those who cooked up the visit over breakfasts at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem a month ago were Romney’s adviser Dan Senor and Netanyahu’s adviser, Ron Dermer, who himself hails from a Republican family in Miami.
“The two clandestinely planned the visit in order to preempt Barak Obama visiting Israel before the Republican candidate.”
It’s also worth noting that Romney and Netanyahu know each other from their days spent at the Boston Consulting Group, a global management consulting firm and one of the world's leading advisors on business strategy.
Bibi has made it clear that he wants Romney to win this election. And if Romney wins Bibi will also be a big winner. But what if Romney loses? What will this to do his already deteriorated relationship with President Obama? Bibi is likely going to win a new Israeli election, and Obama is the current favorite to win the US election. In this author’s opinion, Bibi is only hurting Israeli-US political relations with this charade.
As for Mitt Romney, his trip to Israel clearly showed that he’s pro-Israel, and is good with money. But, if anything, his time spent in the Holy Land only emphasized his lack of foreign policy experience and know-how, not his ability to learn it.