Speaking to an often-cheering group of about 400 people in Jerusalem, Governor Mitt Romney gave a speech less notable for what he said than for the fact that the audience believed he was sincere in saying it.
At a beautiful outdoor setting with the Old City in the background, Romney declared his strong support for Israel, using phrases often heard from American presidents. He also proclaimed his view that Jerusalem is Israel’s eternal capital. The difference between the two presidential candidates, of course, is that those Israelis listening to both of them are less inclined to think that when President Barack Obama said similar things to AIPAC meetings he was describing what he thinks and intends to do.
Clearly, Romney was restrained by the American principle that partisan politics stops at the water’s edge, the view that no politician should criticize a president or U.S. government while abroad. Thus, Obama’s name—or even his specific policies—was never explicitly mentioned.
What Romney did do, however, was to scatter among the assertions of U.S. support for Israel’s security and a strong belief in a U.S.-Israel alliance some subtle references that many viewers and much of the mass media are likely to miss. Here are the key ones, which give some hints about Romney’s future campaign and possibly his presidency:
–Not allergic to Israel’s center-right. Romney quoted former Prime Minister Menahem Begin twice and referred to “my friend, Bibi Netanyahu.” Obama wouldn’t have cited either man and is known to loathe Netanyahu. Romney and Netanyahu have known each other for years. The Begin quotes were significant: that Israel will never again let its independence be destroyed (a reference perhaps to Israel’s need not to be completely subservient to America’s current president) and that if people say they want to destroy you then believe them (an explicit reference to Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons).
On the other hand, however, Romney should have quoted Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, or someone else to balance things off. Romney should not mirror Obama’s approach of choosing one sector of Israeli politics to cultivate. And since there is a broad Israeli national consensus on “foreign policy” this would not be at all hard to do.
–“The reality of hate.” This phrase used by Romney struck me as very significant. It occurred in the context of speaking about how many Arab and Muslim forces feel about Israel. It shows that he is aware that the desire to destroy and injure Israel goes beyond pragmatic considerations and is not something people will be talked out of trying to do. It is enormously important for an American president to understand that there are those in the Middle East who hate the United States and Israel and that it is impossible to appease or befriend them.
–He also said that Israel “faces enemies that deny past crimes against the Jewish people and intend to commit new ones.” This was a reference to Iran but also reflects his understanding about the depth of the conflict and the incredible difficulty of resolving it, a contrast to Obama’s at-least-initial stance.
–A real comprehension of terrorism, not mitigated by attempts at “balance” or rationalization. Romney referred both to the Munich Olympics attack—significant given the ongoing Olympics and his own experience running the Games—and the tenth anniversary of a bombing at Hebrew University that, he noted, killed both Israeli and American students.
— While spending much of the speech declaring his commitment to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons—a position that Obama also takes in his rhetoric—Romney also mentioned Iranian dissidents, recalling their repression by the regime. A knowledgeable listener would recall that Obama refused to help the dissidents. “The threat to Israel comes not from the Iranian people but from a regime that oppresses them,” Romney said.
–Of tremendous importance was Romney’s hint that the weakness of the Obama administration has encouraged extremists to become more aggressive and Iran to be bolder. He never said this directly but mentioned “the ayatollahs in Tehran testing our moral defenses” to see if the West would abandon Israel. Perhaps the speech’s most important line was this one:
“We cannot stand silent as those who seek to undermine Israel, voice their criticisms. And we certainly should not join in that criticism.”
This is a critique of Obama’s argument that he would persuade the Arabs to end the conflict by distancing the United States from Israel.
–On one point, Romney seemed to echo Obama by saying that the United States should be on the “right side of history.” Yet he added that the United States must make strong arguments to shape the values and systems that prevail in the Arab world. In contrast, Obama’s policy seems more passive, merely accepting whatever prevails in those countries. One could go even further and point to Obama’s backing for Muslim Brotherhood forces on a number of occasions.
References to the Arab world were relatively limited. On Egypt he said that hopefully the new government there understands the importance of respecting minority rights and keeping the peace agreement with Israel. Syria, Romney said, in an outdated phrase, was on the verge of civil war. The civil war has already arrived.
Much of the rest of the speech discussed the threats to Israel, the common interests of the two countries, and other staples of such occasions. Israel, Romney stated, exports technology, not tyranny and terrorism.
What was especially interesting was Romney’s list of five factors that brought together the United States and Israel: democracy, the rule of law, a belief in universal rights granted by our Creator (a reference to the Declaration of Independence and a subtle rebuke to Obama’s frequent omission of that divine attribution), free enterprise, and freedom of expression.
And then Romney added something that might become one of his most important lines in the months to come: Capitalism was the only economic system in history to raise people from poverty and create a huge middle class.
For full text and video see here.