Jonathan S. Tobin For generations, historians have lauded the friendship that existed between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as being a crucial element that made the wartime alliance between the United States and Great Britain a success. But apparently there are some people who aren’t as happy about the prospect of close relations between a would-be U.S. president and the head of the government of one of America’s closest allies. The New York Timesdevoted a portion of the cover of its Sunday edition and considerable space inside to a feature that detailed the ties between likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that go back to the 1970’s when both were young men working at the Boston Consulting Group. According to theTimes, this has some people worried that too much “deference” on Romney’s part to Netanyahu would “influence decision making” and possibly “subcontract Middle East policy to Israel.”
This potential smear invokes two of the hoary canards of anti-Israel invective: the dual loyalty charge (usually lodged against American Jews) and the notion that a politician is pandering to the pro-Israel community for votes (in this case, evangelical Christians are the more likely candidates for influence than the more liberal Jews). But the idea that Romney is suspect because he has a longstanding friendship with the Israeli prime minister is absurd. Allies are supposed to be friends or at least ought to be able to understand each other and speak frankly about potential conflicts. Given that President Obama spent the first three years of his presidency picking fights with Netanyahu that did nothing to enhance America’s strategic position or the Middle East peace process, wouldn’t Romney’s ability to communicate without rancor with the Israeli be an advantage rather than a cause of suspicion?
Close allies and friends can disagree and often do as did Roosevelt and Churchill. We imagine the same would apply to Romney and Netanyahu. The idea that a Romney administration would “subcontract Middle East policy to Israel” is nonsense. The U.S. is always going to view events through the prism of its own specific interests, as does Israel. But problems arise not so much because of the existence of these different frames of reference but from a failure of leaders to be able to communicate their positions and to understand those of their ally’s. In this case, the ability of Romney and Netanyahu to understand each other’s thinking will enhance not only the security of Israel but of the United States.
With Obama, whose lack of affinity for Israel is obvious and distaste for Netanyahu is a matter of public record, the prime minister has good reason to doubt the word of the president when he asks Israel to forbear from taking certain actions or to defer to America’s wishes. It is possible that Romney would have far more latitude to press the Israelis because, as was the case between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, there will be a strong sense of trust. Whether that would work out to Israel’s benefit is an open question, but at a time when both nations are facing a deadly nuclear threat from Iran, more trust and communication between Washington and Jerusalem is certainly to be welcomed.
It is true that some found Romney’s debate line in which disparaged Newt Gingrich’s quip about the Palestinians being an invented people disturbing. Romney said, “Before I made a statement of that nature, I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say: ‘Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?’” But it makes perfect sense that any American president would wish to confer with the prime minister of Israel before launching any barb at the Palestinians, let alone a policy change. That is not the case with Obama, who has frequently sought to ambush the Israeli.
Lest anyone think Romney and Netanyahu are blood brothers, the Times feature ought to make it clear the two have not exactly been in constant contact since they first met in 1976. They knew and admired each other as successful young men working together but only renewed that friendship many years later after Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts. The fact that Romney worked for a time with Netanyahu’s second wife Fleur Cates, something that the Times throws in for ballast, is irrelevant to this discussion as he divorced her almost 30 years ago.
The only way a close knowledge and good relationship with Israel’s prime minister could be considered a drawback in an American president is if you thought there was something questionable about the alliance between the two countries in the first place. Those who promote the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby canard about U.S. supporters of Israel being disloyal to the United States will, no doubt, regard the Romney-Netanyahu friendship as a reason to vote against the Republican. They will, no doubt prefer a president like Obama who sees an Islamist such as Turkey’s Recey Tayyip Erdoğan as the sort of foreign leader he feels more comfortable with. But for the vast majority of Americans who think of Israel in much the same way as they once thought of Britain — as a wartime ally — it will be one more argument in Romney’s favor.