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With Romney Visit, Bibi Places His Bet

Israeli prime minister risks relationship with U.S president into 2017

Marc Tracy
July 03, 2012
Prime Minister Netanyahu Sunday.(Abir Sultan/AFP/GettyImages)
Prime Minister Netanyahu Sunday.(Abir Sultan/AFP/GettyImages)

Some may try to argue that Mitt Romney’s planned trip to Israel is a mistake, or will backfire: that he could be seen as out-of-touch to what voters care about; that he might make a gaffe. They will be wrong. Romney is inoculated from charges that he is focusing on the wrong issue at the wrong time, because President Obama visited Israel as a candidate at almost the exact same point in the election cycle four years ago. Any gaffe he makes, like his earlier “do the opposite” gaffe—an honest-to-God gaffe, to be sure—is going to have a short shelf life in an election dominated by domestic issues. This is a smart move for Romney, allowing him to portray himself as strong on the token foreign policy/values issue of the campaign and highlight the fact that Obama didn’t visit Israel as president despite giving a big speech to the Muslim world in Cairo. (Here is Romney adviser Dan Senor on television explaining the rationale behind the trip. It’s quite persuasive.)

… But what about for Prime Minister Netanyahu? Here is where things get slightly more interesting. Netanyahu can cast himself as a benign party here, simply the leader of Israel looking for good relations with both sides of the American partisan aisle. But this jibes against Romney’s own narrative of a beef between Netanyahu and Obama. And it jibes also against what we know to be reality—that there is a beef between Netanyahu and Obama; that Netanyahu is a conservative who actually frequently calls to mind nothing so much as the world’s most talented and effective Republican politician; that Netanyahu would almost certainly prefer President Romney to President Obama.

Chemi Shalev goes through the potential problems for the prime minister: “Netanyahu will be hard pressed to convince anyone that his statements are benign and his intentions only honorable,” he notes. And he highlights the stakes:

If Romney goes on to win the elections, of course, Netanyahu’s gamble will pay handsome dividends, especially in a close contest in which Jewish voters in battleground states are perceived to have made all the difference. But if Obama wins—and the current odds are 50-50, no more and no less—Romney’s summer visit will add to the significant reservoirs of ill will that have already accumulated on both sides of the Israeli-American divide. Of course, people in Jerusalem might believe that things can’t get any worse, but in such situations, they usually do.

He’s overstating the importance of Jewish voters; it also isn’t exactly 50-50 (Nate Silver puts it at 68.6-31.4, and I imagine most Republicans would give Obama a slight edge right now). But Shalev is absolutely right to call this a gamble. And what’s remarkable is that it’s a gamble Netanyahu appears to be deliberately making. News of Romney’s trip came not from Team Romney but from Team Bibi—specifically Ron Dermer, Bibi’s aide-de-camp, whom Allison Hoffman profiled last year.

Florida-born, Frank Luntz-trained, Dermer comes out of American politics and has never taken his fingers off its pulse. He and his boss have every right to make this gamble; it’s still the U.S. voters who get to pick the next president. But is it wise? I’d hate to be Netanyahu—or Dermer—the day after Obama is re-elected.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.