Seeking to brush up his foreign policy credentials, Mitt Romney will travel to Israel this summer on a trip that will highlight his warm personal relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and potentially build his support among Jewish and evangelical voters.
A campaign official confirmed that the trip, which had been rumored for months and was first reported by the New York Times on Monday, will include a visit with Netanyahu. Romney’s team is not yet releasing any other details, including whether it will be a component of his trip to London to attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.
The foreign tour has become a rite of passage for presidential candidates as they try to show voters that they are prepared to lead on the world stage. Romney’s visit to Israel will mark a rare diversion from his intensive focus on America’s economic plight and his plans to help spur job growth in the U.S. Foreign policy has largely taken a back seat to those issues this year in the matchup between President Obama and the presumptive Republican nominee.
Both Obama and Republican candidate Sen. John McCain took extensive trips abroad during the summer of 2008 that provided useful talking points in their fall debates. Obama, who was cast by the McCain campaign as a callow and inexperienced one-term senator, visited Iraq and Afghanistan before engaging in two days of talks about Mideast peace efforts with leaders in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. At that time, Obama promised to work “from the minute I’m sworn in to office to try to find some breakthroughs” in Israeli-Palestinian relations, a challenge that has vexed U.S. presidents for decades.
Though Obama won 78% of Jewish voters in 2008, according to exit polls, Romney’s team clearly sees an opening because of disappointment over the lack of progress on that front. While Obama has had a rocky relationship with Netanyahu, Romney enjoys a close relationship with the prime minister that dates to their work together at the Boston Consulting Group in the mid-1970s.
Romney told the New York Times in an interview this spring that the two “can almost speak in shorthand” and that they “share common experiences and have a perspective and underpinning which is similar.”
Romney has also sharply criticized the Obama administration’s approach toward Israel and the threat of a nuclear Iran, warning an audience at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference earlier this year that Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon if Obama were reelected. He has argued that Obama did not act quickly enough to enforce crippling sanctions on Iran, putting Israel in jeopardy.
Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition who accompanied Romney on one of his three previous trips to Israel in 2007, noted that there is disappointment within the Jewish community that Obama has not visited Israel as president even though he has traveled extensively in the region.
Romney’s upcoming trip, Brooks said, “sends a signal to the Iranians and the people of Egypt, of Syria and all the other areas of concern in that region that this is something he takes very seriously.”
“Obama has seen a significant erosion of support in the Jewish community,” Brooks said. “There is no question that this trip will be very well received in the Jewish community and in the evangelical community as a sign of Romney’s commitment to these issues and his friendship with Israel.”
During the 2007 trip with the Republican Jewish Coalition, Romney addressed the Herzliya Conference and outlined seven steps that he believed the U.S. should take to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He also met with many of Israel’s top leaders, toured the nation by helicopter to assess its security challenges and shared a private dinner with Netanyahu, Brooks said.
Reflecting on that friendship during the March speech at AIPAC, Romney said he respected Netanyahu’s “intellect and courage.” “In a Romney administration,” he said, “there will be no gap between our nations or between our leaders,”