All Eyes on Foreign Policy as Romney Leaves for Britain, Israel, and Poland

Largely neglected this election season, foreign policy will get some attention in the coming days, with Romney having left on Wednesday for a six-day trip to Britain, Israel and Poland.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had a lot to say about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's speech to a U.S. veterans' group on Tuesday. Soon after Romney spoke, the Obama campaign issued a long, scathing statement from Biden in which he noted noted that Romney ignored some vital facts when he condemned President Barack Obama's foreign policy.

"One thing the Governor did not talk about today was Al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. That's not surprising. When he last ran for president, Governor Romney was asked what he would do about bin Laden. He said then, "It is not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person. We know how Obama answered that question: by ordering our intelligence services to leave no stone unturned in the hunt for bin Laden."

With the economy on everyone's minds, foreign policy is taking a back seat this election season. That said, it will get some attention in coming days, with Romney having left on Wednesday for a six-day trip to Britain, Israel and Poland.

Obama also traveled to Europe in July when he was a candidate, in 2008. But other than the timing, it's pointless to seek similarities between the two trips. Romney won't be greeted by enormous crowds, as Obama was in Berlin. In fact, with the Olympic Games beginning in London tomorrow, he probably won't grab too many headlines there, despite some high-profile meetings.

Romney's visit includes three countries; Obama went to eight, including trouble spots like Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama's "rock-star" trip was as much about him as a symbol as it was about his foreign policy vision. Romney is sticking to a "learn and listen" opportunity with close allies in less controversial countries. Well, it's possible the Russians won't like his message in Poland. But hey, after dubbing Russia the United States' "number one geopolitical foe," it's futile to hope for the Kremlin's affection anyway.

Romney's largest political gain could be in Israel; not because of the Jewish vote, but because of the evangelical Christians' vote. But his timing is hardly optimal. (Then again, President Obama couldn't find a good time to visit for the past three and a half years, though an aide said he will make it here in his second term. ) Romney arrives on Saturday, which is Tisha B'av, when Jews fast to commemorate the destruction of their holy temples. The fast will take place on Sunday, and about 90 minutes after it ends, Romney will attend a $50,000 dollars-a-plate fundraising event in Jerusalem. Since only U.S. citizens can legally donate to political campaigns, it's good to know that there are American immigrants doing well enough to attend.

Romney's 'friend'

There will be probably a good photo op with Romney's "friend Benjamin" in Jerusalem (although I am still a bit perplexed over Netanyahu's own description of this decades-old "friendship" dating back to when the two worked at the same Boston firm: "I knew him and he knew me, I suppose" ). But the Israeli leader has a lot on his mind these days, between chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria, a covert Iranian war against Israeli targets and the blow to his political prestige after Kadima left the coalition.

Besides, Netanyahu is smart enough to know that as much as he might like to see Romney replace Obama at the White House, the incumbent might stay put, and Bibi has to cover his bases. As he told Fox News on Sunday, he is not going to insert himself into the American political field.

So what is the benefit of the visit, I asked Tevi Troy, former Bush administration official and Romney campaign's adviser. Isn't this focus on foreign policy a distraction from the main issues in Romney's campaign?

"Most of the public tends to vote on domestic issues," Troy answered, "especially when the economy is in a bad shape. But a president has responsibilities on both the domestic front and the foreign front. It is important to establish foreign policy credentials before going in."

Can we really expect any difference in policy with regard to Israel if Romney enters the White House?

"You can expect a warmer relationship and conversations based on understanding the realities and challenges that Israel faces, and I think that's important."

Poll after poll shows that Jewish voters do not support the Republicans. Does Governor Romney stand a chance with this community?

"I believe that a majority of Jewish voters will vote Democrat, as they did in the previous elections. But the question is, in what percentage ... The Republicans can get higher than the 22 percent of the Jewish vote that they got last elections ... There are a lot of Jewish voters in many important swing states ... If they don't vote in overwhelming margins for the Democrats, it could pull down Democratic totals."

So far, Governor Romney hasn't been doing too much "synagogue storming".

"He's spoken to the Republican Jewish Coalition, he's spoken to AIPAC, he is going to Israel. There has been a Jewish outreach team for Governor Romney for a year and counting. I expect there will be more outreach to Jewish groups in months ahead."

Anti-Obama ads

The Republican Jewish Coalition is doing its own outreach work. The group, chaired by anti-Obama casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, has launched a multi-million dollar "Buyer's remorse" ad campaign targeting Jewish American voters. The ads feature Democrats who say they voted for Obama, but have been disappointed by him, mainly because of his positions on Israel and the Middle East. RJC executive director Matt Brooks said the ads "give voice to the nagging doubts that many in the Jewish community feel about Obama."

Brooks also said that he has no problem with Adelson's pledge to spend up to $100 million to unseat Obama, and that even Jewish Democrats realize they've been engaged in an "unfair character assassination of one of the Jewish community's most important leaders."

Oslo: 20 years later

The International Israel Allies Caucus Foundation organized a discussion in D.C. last week to examine the implications of the 1993 Oslo Accords, nearly 20 years after the signing.

One of its architects, Yossi Beilin, made a somewhat surprising admission to the audience. "My interest is not necessarily the Palestinian state," Beilin said. "I want a Jewish majority in [Israel] forever. If there is no line between us and them there will be a Jewish minority controlling a Palestinian majority."

Rabbi Benny Elon, IIACF President and long time critic of Oslo, said he supports peace but stressed the importance of Arab recognition of Israel first. Democracy isn't just about majority control, he said. "Democracy is about values. Elections in Gaza and Egypt show they are so far away from that".

Oslo supporters were the clear minority on the panels. U.S. Congressman Eliot Engel said the United States "shouldn't be even-handed, because when one side is right and the other wrong, if you are even-handed you are half-wrong". MK Danny Danon (Likud ) warned that Gaza is a good example of what a Palestinian state might look like. "We do not want to see a terrorist state in our backyard," Danon said, calling the Oslo agreement "kaput".

Ghaith Al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, tried to emphasize Oslo's benefits, noting that it helped establish mutual respect between the Israelis and Palestinians. It's time to get back to talks, he said.

It's unclear when Israelis and Palestinians will be ready to talk, but one thing is certain: there will never be a time when someone isn't talking about the talks.