Israel — the place to go in an election year

Israel has become a prime travel destination for American politicians recently. Last week, Gov. Mitt Romney made a much publicized trip to Jerusalem, which left some people happier than others. He was preceded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had frequented us a week before him, and succeeded by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has just concluded a visit this week.

Right now, many Israelis are vacationing abroad, and the miserable ones who have stayed at home are agonizing under the terrible August sun, their brains turning into jelly so they can’t anymore tell who is coming and who is going, and why. All people know is that these trips have something to do with Iran, but few people can tell exactly how. On one thing, however, Israelis are unanimous: They hate with passion the traffic jams caused by those state visits.

Having said that, the Israeli conventional wisdom is that secretaries Clinton and Panetta came to Jerusalem to tell Israeli leaders not to strike Iran and rather give sanctions a chance, before turning to military option. Romney, on the other hand, sounded more skeptical about the effectiveness of the sanctions, and more hawkish about the possibility of a military strike, whoever carries it out: “No option should be excluded,” in his words.

Since none of us really knows what has been said behind closed doors, we can only rely on public statements American politicians made during these last three visits, and these, not surprisingly, show very little differences between Republicans and Democrats. Everybody — including President Obama — vows not to let Iran become nuclear. Gov. Romney promised that “no option should be excluded,” while Secretary Panetta said here that “all options are on the table.” Does anyone have any idea which of the two statements is better?

In his Jerusalem visit, Gov. Romney said that, “We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with you.” But Sec. Panetta said similar things. A tie again.

After a lot of scrutiny, I think I found some nuance in Gov. Romney’s speech, which might signify something. He said: “We must not delude ourselves into thinking that containment is an option.” What he implies, I guess, is that the Obama administration is leaning too much on sanctions (Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak himself said so to Panetta publicly), and when sanctions fail, President Obama and his people will presumably shrug their shoulders and retreat to Cold War style containment.

However, one statement in particular Gov. Romney made in Jerusalem caught my attention. “We cannot stand silent as those who seek to undermine Israel, voice their criticisms,” he said. “And we certainly should not join in that criticism.” Well said. I was at a “human rights” convention in Durban when Israel was clobbered right and left, and it was the clear and unequivocal American voice that saved the day.

Then Romney went on to say that, “Diplomatic distance in public between our nations emboldens Israel’s adversaries.” This is a carefully drafted sentence. Diplomatic distance in public, he said, suggesting that in private, behind closed doors, there should be a candid exchange of opinions, and differences should be ironed out.

Again, I couldn’t agree more, although I have to admit that once in a while, like between lovers or married couples (not that there should be a difference between the two), a healthy fight helps cleanse and strengthen a relationship. The demand that official America must agree automatically with everything Israel says or does is not helpful to the strong relationship the two countries have.

By the way, we in Israel can take criticism and survive. To quote Gov. Romney again: “[W]e both believe in freedom of expression, because we are confident in our ideas and in the ability of men and women to think for themselves. We do not fear open debate.”

To show that he really understands the Israelis, he added: “If you want to hear some very sharp criticisms of Israel and its policies, you don’t have to cross any borders. All you have to do is walk down the street and into a café, where you’ll hear people reasoning, arguing, and speaking their mind. Or pick up an Israeli newspaper — you’ll find some of the toughest criticism of Israel you’ll read anywhere. Your nation, like ours, is stronger for this energetic exchange of ideas and opinions.”

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalen.

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