As election season heats up and murmurs of war with Iran turn to cable news shouts, conservatives are once again looking to use the White House’s somewhat tumultuous relationship with Israel as a wedge to pry Jewish voters away from President Obama in November.
One issue that they’ll likely push to achieve that end: Obama’s failure so far to visit Israel while in office, and whether he will do so in the near future.
“As president, my first foreign trip will not be to Cairo or Riyadh or Ankara — it will be to Jerusalem,” Mitt Romney said in a speech to pro-Israel group AIPAC this month. He used a similar line in December before the Republican Jewish Coalition, saying Obama “has visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iraq. He even offered to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet in three years, he has not found it in his interest to visit Israel, our ally, our friend, the sole Middle East nation that fully shares our values.”
Romney’s not the only one who has seized on Obama’s absence from Israel while in office. On the left, J Street, a liberal pro-Israel organization, has long urged the president to travel to Jerusalem in order to commit to finding a two-state solution in front of both Israeli and Palestinian audiences.
Will the continued pressure force a trip in the near future? It’s doubtful. According to experts and advocates on both sides of the spectrum, the odds of a visit at this late stage in the campaign season have fallen close to zero.
“We’re political realists,” Jessica Rosenblum, director of communications for J Street, told TPM. “We know that the president is not going to go to Israel in the midst of this election cycle. But, whoever wins the next election, our recommendation will essentially be the same.”
One prominent Jewish Democrat doubted that Obama would face much electoral fallout for not visiting, and said the White House had “moved past the optimal window” for a trip.
“It’s something that obviously was being urged,” the Democrat said. “I think the White House at a few junctures seriously considered it, but there were very heavy logistical concerns … Where we are at now, it would seem overtly political.”
Noah Pollak, executive director of the right-leaning Emergency Committee for Israel, one of Obama’s biggest critics on Israel, said that the White House set the stage for a sour start to their relationship with Israel by opting out of visits so far in Obama’s term, and despite high-profile trips to other Middle Eastern nations. But he said Obama would likely have to wait until a hypothetical second term to correct it at this point, given the political pressure cooker in both countries, where elections are around the corner for both Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Israelis are shrewd and cynical about politics — it’s a vibrant democracy and Israelis would probably view his arrival as a campaign stunt, a way to cover up or palliate a problem for Obama,” he said. “I don’t think they would view it as an earnest and good faith effort to reset or improve relations.”
He added that the situation might be different if an Obama visit had a legitimate chance of injecting new life into talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, but given that talks are in a rut and the White House has been less directly engaged in recent months, it seems unlikely.
According to Brookings Institute scholar Natan Sachs, there are additional national security concerns that may make both Israeli and U.S. officials wary of a high-profile visit. As talk of war with Iran heats up and the U.S. looks to build momentum for a new push to defuse the situation with diplomacy, a visit now could throw that effort off track.
“A visit could complicate things quite dramatically,” Sachs said. “It could be perceived by Iranians as preparation for a joint strike, or it could also go the other direction depending on the tone. The stakes would be much higher and more immediate than either the political considerations or the issues around the Palestinian track, where the U.S. has been less active recently.”
In general, relations with Israel have improved since the White House’s early confrontations with Netanyahu over settlements in Palestinian territory, making a visit to repair relations less urgent. Domestically, things may have reached a low point last September when Rep. Bob Turner (R-NY) won an upset victory in the special election to replace former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) in the heavily Jewish district by focusing almost entirely on sending a message to Obama to be more openly supportive of Israel.
Shortly afterward, however, Obama drew praise even from some of its more prominent domestic critics, like former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who broke with his party to back Turner, for standing with Israel against attempts by Palestinian leaders to declare statehood through the United Nations last year. A recent spate of rocket attacks in Gaza also highlights the success of Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system, which was built with aid from the Obama administration and has been highly successful in the field.
And, for now at least, Israel and the United States are publicly on the same page in trying to prevent shared foe Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon.
As for the politics, there’s no sign yet that the latest push from the right is likely to snap up a large swath of Jewish voters — especially given how many previous efforts have failed. Obama already earned some goodwill as a presidential candidate for a trip to Israel in 2008 in which he personally visited towns affected by missile attacks from terrorists in Gaza, and there will be plenty of opportunities for him to speak before Jewish and pro-Israel audiences to reassure them of his support before November. The campaign isn’t taking them for granted, launching its own effort, Jewish Americans for Obama, that’s already running ads online highlighting the administration’s success in imposing new sanctions on Iran, its military aid to Israel, and its help in blocking critical UN resolutions.
There’s also no rule that says presidents have to make the trip. George W. Bush didn’t visit until late in his second term; Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush never traveled to Israel.
“This is really a quadrennial phenomenon where the Republicans always think they’ll make big inroads with the Jewish community,” David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates and a supporter of Obama, told TPM. “I think candidate pilgrimages to Israel don’t mean much one way or the other, it’s what he’s done the past three and a half years and I think his excellent record speaks for itself.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.