JERUSALEM — If there’s anything that inhabitants of the Promised Land are familiar with, it’s the quadrennial promises of American presidential candidates who show up to affirm the “unbreakable” bond between Israel and the United States.
As candidates, former Presidents George W. Bushand Bill Clinton pledged to movetheU.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, only to change their minds after taking office.
Four years ago, before making his visit, then-candidate Barack Obama voiced support for accepting Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital. His statements raised questions about his position on Palestinians’ claims to make East Jerusalem their center of government, and Obama almost immediately backed off, saying the fate of the city should be determined through negotiations.
History has taught Israelis to keep their distance from the U.S. political fray.
This weekend, Republican contender Mitt Romney will be making the pilgrimage. He has worked hard to portray himself as a better friend than Obama is to Israel. Based on experience, many Israelis are likely to take his visit, and his expressions of support, with a grain of salt. At the same time, some worry that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gotten too close to the Republican Party.
“It’s always better for Israel to not be identified with one party or the other,” said David Ricci, a Hebrew University professor of American studies. “But now Netanyahu appears more closely aligned with conservative Republicans. If Obama wins reelection, the welcoming mat is not going to be as prominently displayed at the White House.”
Ricci said Netanyahu’s government has contributed to the impression of partisanship by maintaining strong ties to Republicans in Congress and frequently complaining that the Obama administration is not doing enough to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu supporters also blame Obama for the collapse of peace talks with the Palestinians.
When asked last weekend about Romney’s visit, Netanyahu said he would not be drawn into taking sides in U.S. politics.
“I will receive Mitt Romney with the same openness that I received another presidential candidate, then-Sen. Barack Obama, when he came almost four years ago,” Netanyahu told Fox News. “Israel … enjoys bipartisan support, both Democrats and Republicans, and we extend bipartisan hospitality to both Democrats and Republicans.”
Among Israelis, Obama — who has long been viewed with some skepticism here because of his outreach campaign to the Muslim world — is one of the least popular U.S. presidents in years.
His call for a West Bank settlement freeze infuriated many Israelis, particularly after it failed to restart sustained peace talks as hoped. And many view the lack of a presidential visit since his election as a snub.
Though Romney has visited Israel before, he will face similar challenges and minefields when dealing with the specifics of how he would restart peace talks, prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb and respond to Israeli calls to release imprisoned American spy Jonathan Pollard, political strategists say.