Mitt Romney infuriated Palestinians during his visit to Israel on the weekend by calling Jerusalem “the capital of Israel.” He then added insult to injury by noting—in the context of a discussion of “culture”—the “dramatically stark difference in economic vitality” between Israelis and Palestinians. A Palestinian official called the remark “racist.”
I’m beginning to warm to Mitt.
We live in a time when being pro-Israel has become a key test of a candidate’s presidential fitness, and rightly so. George W. Bush passed that test on a helicopter ride over Israel with Ariel Sharon in 1999. Barack Obama tried to do the same when he paid homage to the besieged Israeli town of Sderot in 2008.
By contrast, Jimmy Carter thinks Israel is a virtual apartheid state, which is just the sort of thought that makes Carter Carter. To be anti-Israel doesn’t absolutely, positively, make you an anti-Semite. But it does mark you out as something between a moron and a crank.
President Obama has yet to do anything toward Israel that would put him in the Carter league—quite. But give him a second term. Perhaps his performance so far has been only an overture.
This performance includes unprecedented personal chilliness toward the Israeli prime minister; unprecedented warmth toward Turkey’s anti-Israel prime minister; an unprecedented effort to put diplomatic distance between the U.S. and Israel; and, more recently, an unprecedented campaign of intelligence and military leaks designed to stay Israel’s hand against Iran. The president only seems to get right with Israel when he senses he’s in political trouble, or when his fundraising efforts lag, or when there’s a big Aipac speech to deliver. Last week, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, couldn’t bring himself to name Israel’s capital when asked at a briefing. Why?
You hear a lot of theories trying to explain this, often centered on Mr. Obama’s past friendships with the likes of Prof. Rashid Khalidi, Rev. Jeremiah Wright or Rabbi Arnold Wolf, the late firebrand of the Jewish far left. I have a simpler theory: The president’s views are of a piece with the broader left-right debate on the nature of success.
When detractors think about Israel, they tend to think its successes are largely ill-gotten: Somebody else’s land, somebody else’s money, somebody else’s rights. It’s the view that Israel gets an unfair share of foreign aid from the U.S., and that it takes an unfair share of territory from the Palestinians. It’s also the view that, as the presumptive stronger party in its dealings with the Palestinians, Israel bears the onus of making concessions and taking the proverbial risks for peace. As the supposed underdogs, Palestinians are not burdened by any reciprocal moral obligations.
By contrast, when admirers of Israel visit the country, they typically marvel at everything it has planted, built, invented, re-imagined, restored, saved. Israel’s friends think that the country has earned its success the hard way, and that it deserves to reap the rewards. Hence Mitt Romney on Sunday: “You export technology, not tyranny or terrorism. . . . What you have built here, with your own hands, is a tribute to your people.”
Animating one side of this divide is a sense of admiration. Animating the other is a sense of envy. Could Mr. Obama have uttered lines like Mitt Romney’s? Maybe. But you get the feeling that scrolling in the back of his mind would be the words, “You didn’t build that.”
Does this mean that Mr. Obama is “anti-Israel” in the most invidious sense? Mr. Obama seems sincere when he speaks of his admiration for Israeli kibbutzim, or his outrage at Holocaust denial, or his solidarity with Israeli victims of terrorism. And he seems more than sincere in his desire to return Israel to something approximating its 1967 borders.
But all this amounts to a form of nostalgia for the Israel that once was—the plucky underdog, the proud member of the Socialist International. And Israel isn’t going back there any more.
Mr. Romney’s attitude toward Israel seems to come from a different place. He admires the country as much for where it’s going as for where it has come from. And he’s not prepared to give Palestinians an automatic pass for their failure to do something with the political and economic opportunities they’ve been given. Israeli success, in his mind, is earned—and so is Palestinian failure.
Mr. Romney has a history as an eminently malleable politician, and the views he has offered on Israel have, so far, been politically risk-free. How would he act as president? Who knows, although it would be unthinkable for any Republican president today to seek to strong-arm or publicly humiliate Jerusalem the way Jim Baker did during the George H.W. Bush presidency.
Yet beyond that, one sensed in Mr. Romney’s speech in Jerusalem qualities of conviction and sincerity—two of his lesser known traits. Keep that up, governor, and you may yet win this election.