Daily Israel Report

Are US-Israel Relations Heading for a Change?

Former ambassadors Yoram Ettinger and Zalman Shoval analyze the views of the candidates in the upcoming US presidential elections.
By Gideon Israel
First Publish: 7/17/2012, 10:57 PM

Hillary Clinton arrived in Israel Monday for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. This visit precedes an expected visit by Republican Candidate Mitt Romney, who is seeking to unseat President Obama.

This visit has been touted as one where strategic and regional issues will be discussed, yet the timing of the visit is questionable as President Obama is in the midst of a tight reelection campaign. As election season permeates the air and campaigns for the upcoming November elections intensify, both candidates will declare unshakable support for Israel in the hope of luring the necessary extra votes.

While most voters in America vote with their pockets – the main issues are economic- for some, policy towards Israel is important.

What can be expected from each candidate in the foreign policy arena and specifically with regard to  Israel?

“Conventional wisdom has it that a second term President is much stronger than a first term President, yet this isn’t true”, said Yoram Ettinger former liaison to Congress and expert on US-Israel relations. “Most Presidents have been weaker in their second term, except for James Monroe, and are not necessarily successful in passing the legislation they want, especially if Congress is against it. After the elections, the President becomes less powerful and less relevant for Congress due to his political life expectancy. Obama’s capability of implementing his policies will be less than in his first term.”

Obama and Romney differ on the role of the US in world politics which ultimately affects policy on Israel.  

Ettinger remarked that Obama’s world outlook sees the UN as the spearhead of international relations and this is certainly not the home court of the US. He doesn’t believe in global terrorism and views Islamic terrorism with moral ambiguity which has ultimately led to operational ambiguity.

Obama, he says, believes in moral equivalence between the Arabs and Israel and sees the Palestinian issue as the crown jewel of the Middle East’s problems. According to Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the US, little by little the American public is beginning to understand that the Palestinian issue is not the major problem of the Middle East.

Shoval said that it is difficult to determine if Obama’s policies toward Israel have changed. He began his Presidency by disagreeing heads-on with his advisors who told him that the Israel will only make concessions when it feels that it has US support. Obama stated that he believes the opposite is true.

In the last year he has toned down his criticism of Israel, but it unclear whether that is due to a change in opinion or because it is unpopular to criticize Israel in campaign season

While Obama’s outlook, delineated in his Cairo address, by now is well known, Romney’s foreign policy outlook is relatively unknown. In recent years he has criticized Obama for “throwing Israel under the bus”, but with little information and record on foreign policy, forecasting his policies will be difficult. However, there is the well known proverb “tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are”.

“Romney’s inexperience in foreign policy and statements made on these issues suggest that he will rely on the US foreign policy establishment and foreign policy elites, like Jim Baker, who have never been favorable towards Israel,” commented Ettinger.

“It would not be surprising at all if that’s where his foreign policy advisors come from. It will be important to see who he might choose as his advisors to receive an indication as to the direction of his policies. Condoleezza Rice has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Vice Presidency. This is a perfect example of someone who represents the detachment of the foreign policy establishment from reality.

"Moreover, Rice is responsible for the rise of Hamas and sees Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Advisor for George H.W. Bush and viciously against Israel, as a teacher. Though, it is important to note that Romney has a connection to Judaeo-Christian values, something for which Obama holds no affinity. “

Zalman Shoval mentioned that “it is important to note that the Republican party is composed of elements like the Tea Party who are favorable to Israel, but also might be influenced by the isolationists who are against foreign aid and against American involvement overseas. Thus, much is dependent on which branch has more influence”

According to Shoval, a new US president never brings an extreme change in foreign policy. Since 1967 US presidents have consistently opposed the unification of Jerusalem and building beyond the Green Line. The difference between administrations is the importance that they attribute to the issue.

“The bottom line is that Israel will have a challenge from the upcoming President, no matter who is elected, which is consistent with most presidents except for George W. Bush,” summarized Ettinger.