Okay, so it takes a certain panache to invoke an old-fashioned anti-Semitic trope that insults Jews AND an anti-Arab racist slur against Palestinians – simultaneously. But there you have it – in one brief “your culture” remark to Jewish donors, Romney managed to piss off pretty much everyone in the Middle East.It’s all about Jewish culture, apparently – you know, Jews are so good with money? Where have we heard that before? That was his explanation of why Israel is so much wealthier than its Palestinian neighbors in the occupied territory. More specifically, it was Romney’s explanation of why Israel’s GDP “is about $21,000″ and on the Palestinian Authority it’s more like $10,000 per capita.” It’s just culture – occupation, Israeli control of economy, land, movement of people and goods, borders, water, airspace….that has nothing to do with Palestinian poverty.
(And oh, by the way, in fact Israel’s GDP is not twice as much as the Palestinians’ as Romney claims; it’s actually about TWENTY TIMES bigger because of occupation. In 2011, Israel’s GDP was more than $31,000; in 2010, the Occupied Territories’ was $1,500.)
In terms of his election, none of this mattered very much, of course, because as the New York Times lead editorial recognized, “the real audience for Mr. Romney’s tough talk was American Jews and evangelical Christians.” This was supposed to be the easy itinerary – Candidate Romney would visit three U.S. allies, all governed by right-wing leaders much closer to his brand of Republicanism than to Obama’s centrist style. He started with London – how hard could that be? Well, there was the criticism of the Olympics. There was the public trumpeting of a supposedly secret meeting with the head of MI6. There was the anonymous campaign staffer talking about Romney understanding the special “anglo-saxon relationship” with the UK better than the [OMG he's black!] president. The Sun’s “Mitt the Twit” headline probably summed up the British reaction pretty well.
Israel was next, and with the British fiasco still simmering, some of the goals changed. The pressure was on to not only impress his pro-Israel donors, but to prove his clearly-wanting gravitas and diplomatic chops. In one sense, that was the more dangerous part – because it was in real policy issues, especially the possibility of war with Iran, that Romney’s Great International Journey showed his true colors.
But before he got to Iran, of course, there were more you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up moments. Before Team Romney even arrived in Israel, they had gaffed already – scheduling a festive $50,000/plate fundraising dinner during the solemn Jewish holiday of Tisha Ba’av, requiring believers to fast for an entire day spent in sorrow, remembrance and prayer. They hastily moved the money event from Sunday night to a Monday morning breakfast, but still it rankled.
Then he made the mandatory visit to the Western Wall, one of the holiest Jewish sites in Jerusalem. That was for the photo op – and sure enough, the next morning’s Washington Post and New York Times dutifully featured large full-color renditions of Romney at the wall, wearing the traditional Jewish skullcap. But he had gone to the Wall surrounded by a scrum of photographers and a huge security entourage – disrupting the prayers of the ultra-orthodox Jews already there. Even one of the settler leaders, Romney’s most stalwart Israeli supporters, said the settlers were “disappointed.” Then he canceled a long-scheduled meeting with the opposition Labor Party leader – an act the Israeli press speculated was pushed by Netanyahu himself.
And he essentially ignored the Palestinians (and the fact that his visit was in the middle of Ramadan). The only Palestinian he met with was the U.S. favorite, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who, according to the Globe and Mail, “was summoned to meet the candidate under Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.” The Wall Street Journal reported their talk “mainly stuck to the Olympics.”
It goes on. The pre-Israel London gaffes were matched by those that followed in Poland. Romney’s foot-in-mouth disease shows no signs of healing.
Iran: who would go to war when
But there’s danger as well. Beyond the snarky fodder for late-night television, there were some serious indications of just how extreme candidate Romney’s policies really are. The Times editorial was correct that “On Iran’s nuclear weapons program, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney support trying to halt it with sanctions and negotiations but say military action is an option.” That’s horrific, but technically accurate.
Because as bad as both the candidates are, as willing to threaten the use of force as they are, there is a huge difference between them. Candidate Obama reflects the official U.S. position that a “nuclear-armed Iran” is a red line which could justify the use of force. That’s a dangerous, sure-to-fail recipe for foreign policy. But it refers to Iran having a nuclear weapon – something all analysts agree is years away.
Candidate Romney, on the other hand, accepted the official position of his host country – Israel – which is that a nuclear capable Iran is the red line. As Romney advisor Dan Senor put it, as president Romney would respect any Israeli decision to use unilateral force “to stop Iran from developing the capability” to build a nuclear weapon.
And that is a WAY more dangerous proposition.
There is no accepted international definition of “nuclear capability.” Usually it refers to some combination of access to enriched uranium or the ability to enrich uranium, and the scientific know-how to follow the how-to-build-a-nuke instructions that are pretty much all over the internet. Like every country that produces nuclear power, Iran has all that. Years ago, when Israel first started referring to this concept, the running joke was “what are they gonna do, kill all the scientists?” That isn’t a joke any longer; at least five Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated in the last several years, Israeli responsibility is so widely accepted internationally they have all but acknowledged their role.
Dangerous as they both are, there’s a huge difference between threatening to use force if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, and threatening war to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear capacity – since by Israel’s definition they already have that. When a potential U.S. president accepts the Israeli terms for when military force is acceptable, rejecting the position of his own government, we are way beyond the problem of a candidate criticizing a sitting president when he promised he wouldn’t.
No surprise that even some Israelis accused Romney of harboring “an extremist, dangerous, war-mongering agenda.” Romney’s Israel trip shows us the threat of war in a whole new way.