On Israel, Romney sees opening against Obama

In this handout from the Israeli GPO, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with former Governor of Massachussets Mitt Romney (L) in the Prime Minister's residence on January 13, 2011 in Jerusalem, Israel.
Getty Images
In this handout from the Israeli GPO, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Mitt Romney (L) in the Prime Minister's residence on January 13, 2011 in Jerusalem, Israel.
Getty Images

(CBS News) Mitt Romney wants Americans to know that he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are so close that they nearly have their own language.

"We can almost speak in shorthand," Romney told the New York Times in April. "We share common experiences and have a perspective and underpinning which is similar."

One common experience he references is indeed unique at the highest levels of government: Romney and Netanyahu worked as corporate advisers at Boston Consulting Group in 1976. The Times reported that the working relationship led to a "warm friendship" between the two conservative-aligned politicians that included meals together and regular consultations and briefings over the years.

It's easy to see why Romney wanted to discuss his relationship with Netanyahu: In addition to beefing up a thin foreign policy resume, his "warm friendship" carries with it the implicit suggestion that, as president, Romney would improve the United States' relationship with Israel.

If he can make that case compellingly, Romney could potentially both peel off some of the (largely Democratic) Jewish vote from President Obama and generate additional contributions from major conservative donors who consider Israel a top issue, among them Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The notion that he is close to the Israeli leader could also help Romney with evangelical Christians, a group that strongly supports the Jewish state and has viewed Romney skeptically.

(Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses Romney's trip on "Face the Nation.")

And Romney appears to have an opening. Mr. Obama's relationship with Netanyahu is widely perceived to be strained, thanks in large part to their approach to a potential Palestinian state. After the president said in 2011 that the borders for such a state should be based on the borders that existed before the 1967 war in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Netanyahu called that position "indefensible."

"The relationship between Netanyahu and Obama has been a difficult one, and the interesting thing is that was true of Bill Clinton and Netanyahu as well," said Martin Indyk, Director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Clinton. "And it's essentially because a progressive president seeking to promote peace with the Palestinians, as Clinton did and Obama did, is engaged with a right-wing prime minister leading a right wing coalition in Israel that is unwilling to play the game in the way that presidents that want to make peace are trying to promote. So it's a difference over substance."

In a fact sheet released Tuesday, Romney vowed to "restore our relationship" with Israel, which he says will be the destination of his first foreign trip if he is elected president. Romney also said he would reject "unilateral attempts" by Palestinaians to decide issues and "reduce assistance to the Palestinians if they continue to pursue United Nations recognition or form a unity government that includes Hamas, a terrorist group dedicated to Israel's destruction."

Romney will visit Israel over the weekend to raise money and meet with Netanyahu and other top Israeli and Palestinian officials. The trip also offers a chance to spotlight the fact that Mr. Obama has not visited the country as president. (The Obama campaign says the president will visit if reelected.) The Romney campaign on Wednesday emailed reporters a statement from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor claiming that "there's just been a real cloud, I think, put out by the White House over the relationship that this President has with Israel."

(Romney speaks in London, the first leg of his overseas trip.)

Netanyahu has pushed back at the notion that he and Romney have a close relationship.

"We did not know each other that well," the Israeli leader told Time Magazine in May, speaking of the time the two worked together at Boston Consulting Group. "He was the whiz kid. I was just in the back of the room." Netanyahu added that the two men had only seen each other a handful of times over the years, according to Time.

That characterization doesn't exactly square with the "unusually frank exchange of advice" between the men described in the New York Times article.

"Romney's relationship with Netanyahu is one of acquaintance rather than friendship as far as I can tell," said Indyk. "It's interesting that while the Romney campaign plays it up as a great friendship - that's the way the New York Times reported it - that's not something you hear from the prime minister's office."

For Netanyahu, there is danger in being seen as too closely aligned with Romney.

"He doesn't want to get in the position of complicating his relationship with Obama more than he needs to," said Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert at Brookings. "He understands that Obama has a good chance of winning this election, and he doesn't want to build an adversarial relationship with a guy he may need to get along with in the future."

Asked on CBS' "Face the Nation" last Sunday what will be on the agenda in his meeting with Romney, Netanyahu told host Bob Schieffer he'd discuss "pretty much the same things I've said to the presumptive Democratic candidate, Senator Barack Obama, when I greeted him four years ago, roughly the same time in the campaign."

"I'll tell him about Israel's desire for peace, and also about Israel's concern with the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons, unfortunately, still with us four years later," he continued. Asked if he would be comfortable with Romney as president, Netanyahu responded, "Oh, God, I'm just not going to go that way, Bob."

Romney has called the president "timid and weak in the face of the existential threat of a nuclear war" from Iran - despite the fact that his Iran policy looks nearly identical to that of the president. He has also said, "If Barack Obama gets re-elected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon."

In March, Mr. Obama lashed out at Romney and other Republican presidential candidates for "the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war," arguing their Iran rhetoric reflects the fact that they "don't have a lot of responsibilities." Mr. Obama, who says "we will not countenance Iran getting a nuclear weapon," has pointed to the effectiveness of sanctions and pressed Netanyahu not to act militarily against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Romney's campaign says he won't repeat his attacks on Mr. Obama's Israel and Iran policy while he is overseas, in deference to the longstanding practice of politicians declining to attack the president on foreign shores. The visit to Israel, Indyk said, is an opportunity for Romney to both beef up his foreign policy credentials and appeal to Jewish voters and pro-Israel voters on the Christian right.

"In general, a day of the campaign spent on foreign policy is a day wasted when the economic issues are so front and center today," said Indyk. "But where you can not only check the foreign policy box but appeal to certain domestic constituencies, it then becomes worth it."