WASHINGTON – The tense press conference held by U.S. President Mitt Romney and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu after their meeting at the White House this week left little room for doubt: the honeymoon is over. This was the fifth meeting between the two since Romney’s election, and even Israeli officials had to admit that it was their worst. The unbridled enthusiasm that had accompanied Barak Obama’s loss in the November 2012 has now given way to apprehension that his successor won’t be any better, and, unbelievably, perhaps even worse.
The biggest disappointment stems from Israel’s failed efforts to persuade Romney to change his decision to negotiate an extension of the “Beijing Agreement” reached in the nuclear talks between the P5+1 nuclear talks with Tehran just before the 2012 elections. On the campaign trail, Romney had described the understandings, which permit Iran to enrich uranium on its soil under international supervision, as “an agreement for the liquidation of Israel”, a position which earned him plaudits from both Jerusalem and AIPAC. Most political commentators believe that the coordinated Israeli-Republican campaign against the agreement – which effectively robbed Israel of any possibility of striking Iran militarily – was one of the main reasons for the mass defection of elderly Jews in south Florida that gave Romney the edge in this crucial swing state and, consequently, the presidency itself.
But some analysts noted that in the days after his election, Romney no longer promised to revoke the Beijing memorandums, pledging instead that “the U.S. will always safeguard Israeli’s security as if it was its own.” According to the wide-ranging investigative report published this week in the New York Times, not long after his victory in the polls Romney came to the conclusion that the strategic and economic interests of America – never mind his own political fortunes – mandate that the U.S. refrain from any open confrontation with Tehran, even at the expense of relations with “my good friend Bibi”, as the President continues to address the Israeli prime minister.
According to the Times, Romney was subjected to sustained pressures on Iran, both internal and external, from the day he took office. The “Socialist Troika” as they are dubbed in Jerusalem – French President Francois Hollande, elected in May 2012, British Prime Minister Ed Miliband, elected in May, 2013 and German SDP Chancellor Piir Steinbruck, who heads an eccentric coalition that includes the “Pirates Party” – threatened Romney that they would openly side with Tehran if he went ahead and unilaterally abrogated the understandings with Iran.
“Romney returned shocked and disgusted” from the talks that he held with the three leaders during his first trip abroad, according to one of his close advisers. Nonetheless, Romney repeatedly quoted a saying ascribed to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, based on a popular Israeli song, “things that you see from here you don’t see from there” – or “where you sit is where you stand” in the English-language version –and ordered the State Department to coordinate the resumption of the nuclear negotiations with European and United Nations diplomats.
The newspaper also reports that even though Romney kept his campaign promise and included Jerusalem during that same first trip abroad – his truly critical talks were apparently with the Saudi king in Riyadh, with whom he met immediately following his much-criticized meeting in Ramallah with the new Palestinian president. According to the Times’ report, the understandings reached between Romney and the king – in which former U.S. President and current Saudi lobbyist George Bush played a major role – include a Saudi commitment to maintain global oil supplies at a level that would ensure that American motorists would never pay more than $3 for a gallon of gas. In exchange, Romney pledged not only to provide Saudi Arabia with a “nuclear umbrella” in case of a “tangible Iranian threat” against the Kingdom but to also build three Saudi nuclear reactors near the Red Sea. “We know full well that if we don’t do it, the Russians and the Chinese will fill the vacuum and deprive tens of thousands of real Americans of stable, well-paying jobs,” according to one of the Romney’s major donors who was involved in the talks with Saudi Arabia and spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity.
Confrontation with Conservatives
In the second installment of the Times’ investigation, published yesterday, the newspaper also outlined the warnings given by Romney’s major economic advisers, with the backing of his allies in the financial and business community, by which the renewal of tensions in the Middle East is likely to reverse the positive economic trends of Romney’s first two years in office. “You could also become a one-term president, like Obama,” a Wall Street banker warned the president in a heated phone conversation, according to the Times.
“It’s like Nixon and China,” a one close political confidante told the president. “Obama could have confronted Iran, had he chosen to, but you will immediately be painted as a warmonger. Not only will America’s international standing revert to the bad old days of Bush’s second term in office, but you will also lose the ‘moderate alliance’ with which you wish to govern.”
Indeed, one cannot overstate the significance of the seismic shift that has taken place in American politics in general and in Congress in particular as a result of Romney’s decision to “rule from the center”, especially in internal matters. Romney aroused anger and resentment among Tea Party leaders and conservative die-hards even before the 2012 elections, when, in a last ditch effort to sway Hispanic voters, he adopted proposals for a partial amnesty for US-educated children of illegal immigrants. The conservative consternation changed to open confrontation when Romney decided not to repeal Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, as he had promised during the campaign, acknowledging that Obama’s bill was largely similar to the health care act legislated during his term as governor of Massachusetts. “I’d rather fix it than break it,” he said.
And when the leaders of the Republican establishment urged Romney to “show his moderate fangs”, as one commentator put it, and to forge an alliance with Democrats in Congress in order to push through emergency steps for lowering the Federal budget deficit, including limited tax hikes - the split with the conservative wing became unbridgeable.
The final divorce took place, without a doubt, in Romney’s State of the Union speech in January, following the massive losses sustained by Tea Party candidates in the November, 2014 mid-term elections, in which he pledged to maintain the status quo on issues of church and state – including abortions and contraceptives – in order to bring a about “a more unified union”, as the spin doctors in the White House framed it.
“A heretic and a hypocrite” was how one senior Evangelical pastor from Atlanta reacted to Romney’s centrist policies, but the popularity of “every American’s president” as Romney was now being portrayed, was running sky high, and his approval ratings hadn’t slipped below 60% in over a year.
Back to the Table
The newfound alliance between moderates on both sides of Congress has obviously hindered Israel’s ability to influence the Administration. In a meeting with AIPAC leaders, Republican Party stalwarts reiterated their strong support for Israel, but made clear that they would not challenge the popular leader of their party, especially as his reelection seems assured after Hillary Clinton said in a surprise announcement that she “didn’t have the stomach” to pursue the Democratic nomination in 2016. The leaders of the Democratic Party in Congress, meanwhile, were more blunt, testily telling representatives of the Israeli Embassy, according to the contents of the leaked secret cable sent (in Hebrew) by the Counselor for Congressional Affairs: “You put all of your eggs in the basket of Republicans and conservatives – now you can go look for your friends elsewhere.”
A position paper formulated by the Foreign Ministry’s Research Division posited that Israel’s identification with what it termed “one side of American politics” is now backfiring and leaving it with no effective means of pressuring the president, especially during times of economic prosperity and high presidential approval. The author of the document, a copy of which was made available to the diplomatic correspondent of Haaretz, believes that Israel has “burned its bridges” with the liberal wing of American politics and with the “intellectual elites of the liberal media”, while “neutering” (sic) organizations such as J-Street and hindering their ability to influence Democratic leaders. Under these circumstances, he wrote, it’s only a matter of time before the “peace process”, (quotation marks in the original), is once again prominent on the president’s agenda.
And indeed, several months later, there is no doubt that the bitterest pill that the Israeli Prime Minister had to swallow in his meetings with Romney this week was the President’s announcement that the United States has decided to work for the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians aimed at “ending the occupation that began in 1967 and based on mutually agreed changes to the 1949 Armistice Lines”, as the White House carefully quoted former President George Bush.
According to the proposed framework, the negotiations will be held in two parallel tracks: a regional track based on the 2002 Saudi peace initiative, which Romney has described as “extraordinarily visionary and courageous” and a bilateral track based on the 2003 Road Map for Peace – including a settlement freeze “with which Bush concurred”, as the White House spokesperson noted – as well as the 2008 Annapolis talks between then-Prime Minister Olmert and then-Palestinian President Abbas.
According to officials who participated in the White House talks, the most dramatic moments in this week’s summit occurred when Romney informed Netanyahu that the person who would “navigate” the talks on behalf of the Americans would be none other than Vice President Condoleezza Rice, a strong advocate of the Annapolis process and the person who probably contributed more than anyone to Romney’s victory in the 2012 elections.
“We are very satisfied with the candid talks that we held with our friend the President” an ashen-faced and unusually reticent Netanyahu said at the White House press conference, pointedly refraining from using his familiar “my good buddy Mitt” greeting. Netanyahu knows full well that the visit and the President’s proposals would not go over well in his coalition or in the court of public opinion.
“Netanyahu looked like someone who had to swallow an army of frogs,” wrote one Israeli columnist, using a Hebrew phrase that translates roughly into “eating a ton of humble pie.” The columnist quoted one of the prime minister’s advisers who told reporters – not for attribution, of course – how he woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night in his bedroom at the Blair House on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue after he heard himself shouting in his sleep “where is Obama, where is Obama”, only to be answered by a deathly silence.
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