Presidential candidate Mitt Romney to meet Israeli leaders


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The Independent Online

Mitt Romney's support for Israel will likely earn the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee a warm welcome from Israeli leaders when he meets with them today - and a frosty reception from Palestinians, who fear he would do little to advance their stalled statehood dreams.

Mr Romney, who hopes to defeat Democratic President Barack Obama in November's US general election, touched down in Tel Aviv last night as part of a three-nation foreign tour that includes Britain and Poland. He hopes it will boost his credentials to direct US national security and diplomacy.

The visit to Israel comes at a time when its leaders are weighing a military attack on Iran, the neighbouring regime in Syria is looking increasingly shaky and Mideast peace talks are going nowhere.

Mr Romney, a long-time friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is expected to play up his critique of Mr Obama's posture toward the Jewish state and his handling of Iran's suspected nuclear weapons ambitions.

Israeli political scientist Abraham Diskin says Mr Romney can expect an "enthusiastic" reception, both because of his solid record of pro-Israel comments - and because he is not Mr Obama.

"What interests Israelis is Israel," Mr Diskin said. "Romney has a very pro-Israel stance. He is very suspicious of the Arab world. (Israelis) are very suspicious of Obama."

In an effort to upstage Mr Romney a day before he landed in Israel, the White House announced it was signing legislation expanding military and civilian cooperation with Israel.

Mr Romney told the Israeli daily Haaretz before his arrival that Washington's commitments to Israel should be "as clear as humanly possible" given the changes in the region.

"When Israel feels less secure in the neighbourhood, it should feel more secure of the commitment of the United States to its defence."

With polls showing a close race, Mr Romney hopes this showcase for his pro-Israel stance will help him to woo votes from traditionally Democratic Jewish voters and evangelical Christians who zealously defend Israeli government policy. Mr Obama has not visited Israel since he became president.

The Gallup polling organisation reported on Friday that Mr Obama's standing stood at 68% among Jews, while 25% favoured Romney.

Mr Romney already has stumbled in his first international swing as presidential contender by suggesting that British officials might not be prepared to pull off a successful Olympics.

In an interview with NBC News, he called London's problems with games preparation "disconcerting", and the remark sparked sharp responses from Britain's top officials.

Mr Romney attended swimming events in London yesterday morning ahead of his planned flight to Tel Aviv.

In Israel, Romney will be meeting with Mr Netanyahu, defence minister Ehud Barak, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, President Shimon Peres and Israeli opposition leaders.

He will not see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Abbas aide Nimr Hamad said, though he will be sitting down with the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, in Jerusalem.

The Romney campaign said the likely Republican Party nominee only had time in his schedule to meet with one Palestinian leader and that Mr Fayyad has an existing relationship with Romney. The Abbas camp did not offer an explanation for why no meeting was planned.

Mr Romney's relationship with the US-educated Mr Netanyahu dates back decades, when they briefly overlapped in the 1970s at Boston Consulting Group, and the two men share conservative outlooks. A Romney bankroller, Sheldon Adelson, is financing a free Israeli newspaper that reflects Mr Netanyahu's views.

Mr Netanyahu has refused to endorse either presidential candidate, although his ties with Mr Obama have been fraught.

"I will receive Mitt Romney with the same openness that I received another presidential candidate, then-Senator Barack Obama, when he came almost four years ago, almost the same time in the campaign, to Israel," he said when asked about the visit last Sunday on Fox News. "We extend bipartisan hospitality to both Democrats and Republicans."

Mr Romney, like most politicians who make the trek to Israel, is likely to face questions such as whether he would endorse calls by some fellow Republicans to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his stance on Israeli calls for Washington to release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.

Mr Romney has consistently accused Obama of putting too much pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians and of being too weak on Iran.

He says he wants to present a clearer military threat to the Islamic Republic, with a stronger naval presence in the Gulf. Tehran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons.

At a war veterans' convention in Nevada this week, Mr Romney accused Mr Obama of being "fond of lecturing Israel's leaders".

"He has undermined their position, which was tough enough as it was," Mr Romney said. The "people of Israel deserve better than what they have received from the leader of the free world".

Mr Obama rejects the criticism and points to unprecedented security cooperation with the Jewish state.

Three years after he came into office with Israeli-Palestinian peace at the top of his foreign policy priorities, Mr Obama recently acknowledged that his efforts there have failed. Peace talks have been deadlocked more than three years.

Mr Obama, who tried to persuade the Arab world that he was an honest broker, lost the Palestinians' trust by refusing to follow up tough talk with action when Israel defied his call to halt settlement construction on occupied land Palestinians seek for a future state.

The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has refused to resume negotiations without a settlement construction freeze and went ahead with a statehood campaign at the United Nations, over the president's objections.

Palestinians fear Mr Romney would be softer on Israel than Mr Obama. Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi said that would doom any chance for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establishing a Palestinian state on lands Israel captured in the 1967 war.

"American foreign policy in the region is shaped by Israel and determined by what's good for Israel, and not even what's good for the US," Ms Ashrawi complained.

Mr Romney "will probably try to take it a notch higher," she said, and if the US refuses to put any pressure on Israel, "then there's no chance for peace".

Mr Obama's tense relations with Mr Netanyahu have created the perception that US-Israeli relations have deteriorated.

During one of Netanyahu's White House visits, Mr Obama extended none of the trappings, like a joint news conference, usually accorded to an important ally.