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Will Israel trip help Romney?

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri July 27, 2012
Mitt Romney addresses American Israel Policy Affairs Committee's annual policy conference via a satellite link in March.
Mitt Romney addresses American Israel Policy Affairs Committee's annual policy conference via a satellite link in March.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Miller: Romney had trouble being statesmanlike in Britain, should do much better in Israel
  • He says Romney hopes to score political points there, although positions similar to Obama's
  • He says Romney shows stronger gut connection with Israel; has visited, knows Netanyahu
  • Miller: Jewish vote usually goes Democrat, but Romney trip might help him gain new support

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and served as a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Can America Have Another Great President?" Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- How could anyone screw up a trip to Britain, America's closest ally and a feel-good place brimming these days with national pride and excitement over hosting the 30th Olympic Games?

In less than 24 hours, the Romney campaign and the candidate himself managed to do that, pissing off the Brits and some Americans, too, with alleged comments -- that Obama didn't grasp the U.S.' Anglo-Saxon heritage, that London was poorly prepared for the games.

What was supposed to be a stage managed, noncontroversial trip abroad, designed to demonstrate the candidate's foreign policy acumen and presidential style, has had a pretty awkward start.

But Romney shouldn't worry.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

The next stop in Israel offers a chance for him to shine and to score political points. Indeed, when Romney lands in Tel Aviv this weekend, to paraphrase Ray Charles, he'll have more than Israel on his mind. He'll be focused on November.

News: Romney: Olympic SNAFUs 'disconcerting.'

Having failed to find President Obama's weaknesses on most foreign policy issues, the putative Republican nominee has identified an easy one. Israel.

The chances that Romney will cut seriously into Obama's support among American Jews are pretty slim. Jews aren't single issue voters; most are committed Democrats, and Romney's views on social issues are likely to offset any potential gains. But in close swing states like Florida, where American Jews are politically active, and among evangelicals, many of whom are suspicious of Romney's Mormonism but are pro-Israel, he might pick up new support.

Romney's London blunders
Romney off to a rocky start in London
Romney adviser talks international trip

Indeed, in what promises to be a close election, nothing should be taken for granted and no vulnerability of an opponent ignored. At a minimum, Romney can use the Israel issue to rile up pro-Israeli Republicans. And you never want to give your opponent an emotional issue to help him raise money against you.

On the substance, there's really not much difference between Romney and Obama on Israel. Romney sounds more hawkish on Iran and nuclear weapons, but the fact is, regardless of who wins in November, an American president will face a nervous Israel with a choice: Bomb or accept that Iran has bombs.

I suspect that if confronted with that choice, both candidates would use force. (Indeed, Israeli military and intelligence officials may well prefer an Obama administration already well-versed on Iran than a Romney administration with a new senior level team in the State and Defense departments learning details and policy options on the Iranian nuclear issue.)

On the security commitment to Israel, there's no daylight either. Both candidates have pledged themselves to an unbreakable bond with the Israelis.

News: Romney overseas trip begins in shambles

There is a difference between the two, however on the pursuit of peace with the Palestinians -- an issue Obama cares about and one Romney will most likely not push very hard. Romney has never regarded a proactive American policy on the Arab-Israeli confict as among his strategic priorities. In fact, his campaign site accuses President Obama of having illusions that the issue is central. "The best way to have peace in the Middle East is not for us to vacillate and to appease," Romney asserted earlier this year, "but is to say, 'We stand with our friend Israel. We are committed to a Jewish state in Israel. We will not have an inch of difference between ourselves and our ally, Israel.'"

Obama has already been hurt by his obsessive focus on a settlements freeze in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Early in his administration he came out very tough, pushing for a comprehensive freeze. Netanyahu wouldn't give him one; and Obama blinked. But that process is moribund anyway and isn't likely to figure prominently in the campaign. Even the president has realized it's a loser.

President Obama's vulnerability on the Israel issue, which Romney wants to exploit, is on the emotional side. Obama has a very difficult, if not poisonous, relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu and has a hard time emoting on Israel. Since Israelis and American Jews want to be loved by American presidents, this resonates.

But it goes beyond that. Obama doesn't seem to be as enamored with the idea and the story of Israel — or as emotionally bonded to the Jewish state -- as several of his predecessors were. President Bill Clinton wrote in his memoirs that he loved Israel's former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as he had "rarely loved another man," and was captivated by Israel's heroic struggle.

President George W. Bush viewed Ariel Sharon, even when the prime minister frustrated him, as a warrior and heroic figure. Bush evinced an understanding when it came to Israel's security challenges: "We got driveways in Texas longer than that," the then-governor exclaimed while flying over Israel's narrow waist in a helicopter with Sharon.

Obama shows little of that connection and appears to have a harder time making allowances for Israel's behavior, for example with regard to settlements, and this often undermines American interests. Both Rabin and Sharon continued to build in Jerusalem without undermining their ties with Clinton and Bush.

Without that emotional buffer, Obama appears to view Israel primarily through the filter of national interest and security, not the prism of shared values—a "head thing," not a gut thing. Indeed, he's more like Jimmy Carter, in this respect: tough as nails, without the apparent biblical attachment to Israel.

Romney, as stiff and awkward as he is on many issues, appears more emotional and instinctive, rather than analytical, in the way he relates to the Israel issue. He has been to Israel four times already, knows and likes Netanyahu. "We can almost speak in shorthand," Romney has said. And he has been able to communicate that he understands Israel's position as a small country with a dark past living on the knife's edge. Quite simply, Obama has failed to communicate that, and in this has given his opponent an opening.

On Israel Romney has a chance to be more like the candidate the Republicans wish were running for president -- Ronald Reagan, who despite some fraught moments with Israelis, seemed to instinctively treat the nation as a close ally.

The symbolism of this trip offers Romney the opportunity to be natural, presidential and very pro-Israel. How much it will help him is another matter. But as my grandmother used to say, it couldn't hurt. And if the putative nominee doesn't mess it up with some over-the-top gaffe or un-presidential moment, he may leave Israel feeling better about himself and his prospects in November.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

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