x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 16 December 2017

In Romney, Israeli PM sees a stronger ally

US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney visits Israel to seek support from Israeli PM, and friend, Benjamin Netanyahu

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his wife Ann board his charter plane for a visit to Israel.
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his wife Ann board his charter plane for a visit to Israel.

TEL AVIV // When Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu convene in Jerusalem today, it will be more than just a catch-up meeting between two men who were co-workers at a US consultancy in the 1970s.

For Mr Romney, the 36-hour visit to Israel - part of his first foreign trip as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee - appears to be a bid to persuade the pro-Israel constituencies of evangelical Christians and US Jewry to support him in the November 6 election, analysts said.

Furthermore, they said Mr Romney hopes that holding meetings with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders will boost his foreign policy credentials, which have been widely questioned in the US media.

For Mr Netanyahu, the Israel prime minister, the meeting may be part of well-orchestrated plan to help Mr Romney defeat Barack Obama, the US president, according to experts.

Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli political analyst, said the Israeli leader is counting on Mr Romney to be more open than Mr Obama has been to Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank - land Palestinians hope to be part of their future state. "There is no question that Netanyahu prefers Romney - he expects Romney to be more lenient with Jewish settlers," he said.

Mr Netanyahu has denied meddling in the US election. Nevertheless, one of the Israeli premier's key US backers - the billionaire Sheldon Adelson - is also funding a campaign against Mr Obama and is due to take part in a fund-raiser for Mr Romney in Jerusalem tonight. Mr Adelson owns the Israeli daily newspaper Yisrael Hayom.

Mr Netanyahu and Mr Romney have made no secret of their close friendship. According to a New York Times article in April, they both served as corporate advisers at the Boston Consulting Group in the late 1970s.

From there, they developed a "warm friendship" that included meals in New York, Boston and Jerusalem, a network of common friends and an exchange of advice on issues including politics, economics and the Middle East, according to that article.

Mr Romney, who arrived in Israel late yesterday as part of a trip that also includes the UK and Poland, appears aimed at upstaging Mr Obama, whom he has accused of weakening Washington's relations with its top partner in the Middle East. His appearance here may also highlight Mr Obama's lack of any visits to Israel during his presidency despite several official trips to the region.

Analysts said Mr Romney's approach to Israel will differ from that of Mr Obama on two main issues: Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which Palestinians have insisted must stop growing before any peace talks are resumed; and the threat of a nuclear Iran, which Mr Romney has criticised Mr Obama for being insufficiently aggressive in tackling.

Jamie Fly, executive director of the Washington-based conservative think tank Foreign Policy Initiative, said that Mr Romney would not apply the same pressure as Mr Obama had on Israel to curb the settlements.

In reference to the Palestinians, Mr Fly, who served in the administration of former US president George W Bush, added: "Romney made clear that he would ensure there would be no undue pressure on Israel to make compromises when there is no valid or real partner that Israel can engage with."

Mr Fly said that Mr Romney, if elected US president, may place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the back burner while first tackling the dispute over Iran's nuclear programme or the political transformation of Egypt, a major beneficiary of US foreign aid.

In an interview with the Haaretz newspaper published on Friday, Mr Romney indicated he would be more supportive of Israel's settlement policy.

While attempting to adhere by the tradition of US presidential candidates not criticising each other while abroad, Mr Romney said that "any discussion of settlements will lead me into waters of showing a difference between me and the president". Ahead of his arrival in Israel, Mr Romney wasted no time in turning up his attacks against Mr Obama's approach to the country, which many Republicans have criticised as being too tough on a close ally.

In an interview with Yisrael Hayom newspaper, which has been nicknamed the "Bibiton" for coverage viewed as favouring the premier, Mr Romney charged that Mr Obama has unnecessarily brought disputes with Israel into the public sphere.

He said any differences with Israel would be discussed "in private conversations, not public forums".

Mr Obama's campaign has tried to bolster its image as a supporter of the country ahead of Mr Romney's visit.

On Friday, Mr Obama announced the US will provide Israel with an additional US$70 million (Dh257m) for missile defence, stating that it showed his administration's "unshakeable commitment" to Israel.

Furthermore, a campaign official for Mr Obama said last week the US president would visit Israel during his second term if re-elected.