Romney, Obama show love for Israel in their own separate ways

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

WASHINGTON — It was a weekend of Israel love politically that highlighted two approaches to showing affection for the Jewish state: Go to Israel, as Mitt Romney did, or go pro-Israel, as the administration of President Barack Obama did.

The pictures told the story, or as it were, stories: Romney in a kippah at the Western Wall on Sunday, Obama in the Oval Office two days earlier surrounded by go-to Jews from Congress and the Jewish organizational world to witness the signing of a bill enhancing U.S. defense assistance to Israel.

The reasons for the pitches were both practical and ephemeral: Each campaign scored major Jewish donations leading up to Romney’s trip, and Republicans claimed they would make inroads into the Jewish vote, although polling showed Obama ahead of where he was at this point four years ago.

Each approach had as its centerpiece the threat that Israel perceives from Iran’s suspected nuclear program.

“We must not delude ourselves into thinking that containment is an option,” Romney said, speaking in Jerusalem to the Jerusalem Foundation, the body that solicits philanthropy for the city. “We must lead the effort to prevent Iran from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability. We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded.”

All of these points have been made by Obama, who also rejects “containing” a nuclear Iran and emphasizes diplomacy while reserving military action as an option. Romney’s only seeming difference was that he would not allow any enrichment of uranium, while Obama has not counted enrichment at 3.5 percent to 5 percent for research.

Romney’s points were made, however, in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has expressed skepticism about Obama’s strategy, which has involved pressing Israel to refrain from striking Iran until all options are exhausted. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is due to meet Netanyahu on Wednesday in what has become a parade of top U.S. officials headed to the Jewish state to make the case that Obama’s strategy is the likeliest path to success.

Netanyahu did not appear to be buying it. “We have to be honest and say that all the diplomacy and sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota,” he told Romney in a meeting.

If Netanyahu wasn’t on board, that didn’t stop Obama from selling his approach to the pro-Israel community. In the Oval Office he signed a bill that would enhance security cooperation and increase anti-missile assistance to Israel, all in the presence of two past presidents of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Howard Friedman and Lee Rosenberg; the current chairman of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, Richard Stone; and two of the bill’s sponsors and among the most consistent advocates of Israel in Congress, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.).

Obama emphasized the bigger picture, saying that the deadly attack earlier this month on a Bulgarian tour bus packed with Israeli tourists reinforced his resolve to keep Israel safe.  

“The tragic events that we saw in Bulgaria emphasize the degree to which this continues to be a challenge not just for Israel, but for the entire world — preventing terrorist attacks and making sure the people of Israel are not targeted,” he said.

Obama also cast the bill against the suspected Iranian threat, noting that Panetta and Israeli leaders would “further consult and find additional ways that we can ensure such cooperation at a time when, frankly, the region is experiencing heightened tensions.”

If that weren’t friendly enough, after the signing he teased Boxer, telling the senator, “You’re getting too skinny.”

The signing was followed by a flurry of administration initiatives that appeared to be calibrated in part at reminding American Jews that the administration cared.

On Monday, Obama’s chief of staff, Jack Lew, met with leaders of the Jewish community in New York in what is becoming for him an almost weekly klatsch with Jewish leaders. Also, the State Department released its religious freedom report that described a “rising tide” of anti-Semitism worldwide, although it did not quantify any real increase over previous years.

The following day, the White House introduced new sanctions targeting the slew of groups and individuals that have fronted for Iran in the wake of existing sanctions on its financial and energy sectors.

The Republican Jewish Coalition, meantime, continued to roll out a series of ads featuring Jews who had voted for Obama in 2008 but are disappointed with his Israel policies and now pledge to support Romney.

Jewish votes, however, are never entirely the point of such pro-Israel outreach, principally because support for the Democratic president seems budgeable by only a few percentage points, according to polls. Obama, in fact, fared better in June among Jews than he did in the same month in 2008, according to Gallup tracking polls, which have a margin of error of 5 percentage points: This year he’s at 68 percent, 6 percent higher than in the same month of ‘08 during his first run for the White House.

The real prize is keeping donors on board, and in this area both campaigns had a million-dollar punchline.

Romney raised more than $1 million at a Jerusalem fundraiser that included major American Republican givers, among them Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who has sworn to spend tens of millions of dollars to defeat Obama. 

Haim Saban, the kiddie entertainment mogul who suggested last year that he was no longer enamored of Obama, donated $1 million earlier this month to political action committees dedicated to reelecting the president.