Israeli leader closely involves himself in US race
WASHINGTON — Sometimes it seems as if Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has two running mates. There’s Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to help him out on budgets, deficits and other domestic matters. And then there’s Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on foreign policy.
Netanyahu has been injecting himself into the U.S. presidential race big time. It’s extremely rare, almost unheard of, for a foreign leader to do that. Most, in fact, try their hardest to run the other way.
Romney has sometimes echoed hardline Israeli positions similar to those of Netanyahu, although not always intentionally in public — such as a newly disclosed video clip of a private event in which he tells wealthy supporters that Palestinians “have no interest” in peace with Israel.
Personal friends since they worked together in Boston financial houses as young men, the two seem to see eye to eye on many U.S.-Israeli issues.
And Netanyahu increasingly has been critical of President Barack Obama’s failure to publicly declare a “red line” for Iran — one that could trigger a U.S. military response if crossed.
His involvement seemed to reach a high degree of intensity over the weekend as the Israeli prime minister, who spent much of his childhood in the Philadelphia suburbs and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, appeared on several Sunday TV news shows.
Asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether Iran already had crossed his “red line,” Netanyahu answered with a football reference:
“They’re in the red zone. You know, they’re in the last 20 yards. And you can’t let them cross that goal line. You can’t let them score a touchdown.”
“This is a matter of urgency,” he told CNN, calling on Obama to take the kind of action President John F. Kennedy took in giving the Soviet Union an ultimatum during the Cuban missile crisis.
Noting that Obama has said that it would be unacceptable for Iran to possess nuclear weapons, Netanyahu said, “If you’re determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, it means you’ll act before they get nuclear weapons.”
Romney has said he’d chart his policy toward Israel, if elected, by studying everything Obama has said or done — and doing the exact opposite.
In one of several newly disclosed video clips taken secretly during a private fundraiser in May, Romney says that “the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace” and that the conflict “is going to remain an unsolved problem.”
“We have a potentially volatile solution but we sort of live with it and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it,” he said. Romney added: “The idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world.”
Romney stood by his positions at a news conference although acknowledged he could have phrased them better.
Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi called Romney’s remarks “irresponsible and dangerous and both ignorant and prejudiced. He accused the Republican presidential candidate of “pandering to the Jewish lobby.”
Both Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declined to comment on Romney’s taped remarks.
While foreign leaders have not made a habit of getting involved in U.S. elections, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once bragged to Kennedy that “We elected you.”
When Kennedy asked what he meant, Khrushchev said the Soviet Union expressly decided to wait to release captured U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers until after the 1960 election to keep the Republican candidate, Vice President Richard Nixon, from claiming he could deal better with the Soviets.
Romney and Netanyahu are “two peas in a pod,” said historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University.
Brinkley said it’s rare for foreign leaders to get involved in U.S. elections since British leaders tried in the early 1800s. But he also said “world leaders who went to college in the United States seem to feel a special kinship to America, and often a feeling that they should interject themselves.”
“Leaders keep their eye on each other, but they try to stay away from each other’s national politics,” said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.
In campaign speeches, Romney frequently claims Obama has turned his back on Israel and is too soft on Iran.
Yet despite their policy disagreements, both Obama and Romney seem to both be saying much the same thing on the subject of a “red line.”
Obama says his red line is “that we’re not going to accept Iran having a nuclear weapon” — without being more specific. And Romney says, “My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon.”
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “You have two presidential candidates working away to see who can get the most votes, and an Israeli prime minister working to figure out how to get the most American support.”
Netanyahu claims Iran is six months to seven months away from having 90 percent of the ingredients for a nuclear bomb. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that Obama “does believe that there is a diplomatic window that remains open to preventing that red line from being crossed.”