Mitt Romney’s trip has gotten off to a rocky start, and things could get worse. He will land in Israel this weekend for the second leg of his three-pronged international tour, a tour meant to showcase the candidate’s commitment to “standing with our allies.” No policy proposal will be put forward. But he is stepping into a smoldering cauldron, which might make Mitt say something of substance—or something that he regrets.
The ebb and flow of tension between Israel and Iran have reached an all-time high. Prime Minister Netanyahu asserted Iran’s culpability for the terrorist attack in Bulgaria immediately after the bombing, which prompted former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton to predict an immanent Israeli strike on the Iranian revolutionary guard. This has yet to materialize, and both the U.S. and Israel have been ominously quiet. Meanwhile, Iran has responded by blaming Israel for the attack. The PM and his defense minister Ehud Barak, it was reported yesterday by Times of Israel, have maintained that the risks of a strike pale in comparison to those associated with a nuclear Iran, and that Israel will have to make “difficult and fateful decisions.”
Even as negotiators from the P5+1 meet with Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, in Istanbul the Jerusalem Post reported that U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said that the U.S. and its “partners” had not decided if or how negotiations should proceed. Today, President Obama signed the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act as figures from across the political spectrum flanked him on either side. By so doing, Obama hoped to deflate Romney’s hopes of claiming the pro-Israel mantle in the election. The signing of this bill comes after Secretary Clinton, Tom Donilon, Wendy Sherman, and John O. Brennan visited Israel over the past two weeks -- and just days before Secretary Panetta arrive on Monday.
With all of this activity, warnings have also been issues. In the online pages of The Atlantic, Robert Wright showed how unconscious biases could unintentionally color an interpretation of the facts. And today Haaretz reported that five retired members of the Israeli military elite have expressed doubts about the wisdom of an attack at this time.
So, what is Romney to do? Should he come out and say the president has not done enough? Should he call for tougher sanctions? As Gershom Goremberg wrote today in the Daily Beast, “Romney's point in coming [to Israel] is to spotlight his claim that Obama has mishandled relations with Jerusalem." But there is a norm in American politics not to overly criticize U.S. policy while abroad. In his interview with Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, Romney stuck to this norm very closely. It’s Romney’s presence itself in Jerusalem, rather than what he says there, that is supposed to draw the contrast with the president (for one take on this, look here.)
But the nature of current events is that they have a way of breaking the script. Even though he will try not to make too much news in Israel, don’t be too surprised if Romney ends up, either intentionally or not, making headlines with comments about Iran and Israel. If he does, we could remember it as a decisive moment in the 2012 election, and as a decisive moment in the course of the conflict between Iran and Israel.