Rupert Cornwell: Today, Jerusalem. Tomorrow, Washington?

Out of America: A visit to Israel has become de rigueur for presidential hopefuls. For Mitt Romney, it's also a chance to see an old friend

Share
Related Topics

Life offers few greater pleasures than catching up with old friends. Take Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu. The pair were in their late twenties, rising stars at the pioneering management company, the Boston Consulting Group when their paths first crossed in the mid-1970s. Back then, Bain Capital was no more than a distant gleam in Romney's eye, while Netanyahu was in the US to hone his business skills after fighting in an Israeli special forces unit during the Yom Kippur War.

But they've kept in touch, and now one is prime minister of Israel, while the other might soon be president of the United States. One way and another, there's a lot to talk about. But that's only one reason why Romney is off to Israel next weekend, after dropping in on the London Olympics.

Another consideration is the need to prove he knows something about foreign affairs (not Romney's strongest suit). Above all, though, he is fulfilling what has become an obligatory rite of passage for aspiring US presidents: a public appearance on Israeli soil, to display undying solidarity with the Jewish state.

Oddly, once they are elected and forced to deal with the Middle East's intractable realities, US presidents are in much less of a hurry to visit America's closest regional ally. Ronald Reagan never went to Israel, nor did George HW Bush. Bush Jr, perhaps America's most pro-Israel president yet, waited until his final year in the White House to do so; Barack Obama has yet to go as president.

But when you're a candidate, it's different. Romney has already visited Israel twice. Sarah Palin went in 2011, when everyone assumed she would be running this year. And at this very moment in the 2008 cycle, having finally seen off Hillary Clinton, Democratic Senator Barack Obama went to Jerusalem to proclaim his "unshakeable commitment to Israel's security". Such statements of course are not meant to bring about the miracle of peace with the Palestinians, or to instantly counter the Iranian threat. They are solely about winning votes back home. And you don't do that by upsetting America's mighty pro-Israel lobby.

In absolute terms the Jewish vote here is small, 2 per cent or so of the electorate, and for many of these voters, other issues are at least as important as the fate of Israel. But their clout is out of all proportion to their numbers. And this is not merely because some of the largest Jewish-American populations are in closely fought swing states such as Florida.

Some of Israel's most vociferous supporters are conservatives and evangelical Christians, a major segment of the electorate. Offend them by sounding lukewarm about Israel and you are in serious trouble. And then there's money. Jewish groups have long been major campaign donors, but in the age of the Super Pac and unlimited personal donations, their importance has only increased. Newt Gingrich's 2012 White House bid, for instance, was bankrolled by the Jewish casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, for whom support for Israel is the most important issue (and which may explain why Gingrich breezily dismissed the Palestinians as an "invented people".)

And so to what many see as the spider at the centre of the web, the Lobby – in other words Aipac, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Of the many Jewish groups, Aipac is the most influential. No fewer than 13,000 delegates attended its 2012 annual conference in Washington, addressed by President Obama and every Republican presidential candidate, outbidding each other in declarations of fealty to Israel. Its influence on US Middle East policy is legendary; if America's inbuilt bias towards Israel is the biggest obstacle to a Palestinian settlement, as many contend, then Aipac is probably the biggest reason why.

Is it really that powerful? Incur the wrath of the Israel lobby, it is said, and your political career may be doomed. Exhibit A for this theory is Republican Senator Charles Percy, who was defeated in 1984 after he had crossed Aipac by supporting the sale of US military aircraft to Saudi Arabia, a step vigorously opposed by Israel. Whether or not that is true is beside the point. Power lies in the perception of power, and Aipac is perceived to be very powerful indeed. Just how powerful, even the Obama campaign may now be starting to wonder. In every election, Jewish-Americans are a reliable Democratic constituency; four years ago they went 78 per cent for Obama. But this time Republicans sense an opening, as they assail the President for his "disdain" for Israel – manifest in his demands for a halt to new settlements, his use of the word "occupation" for the Palestinian territories, and his clear opposition to a military strike against Iran's nuclear sites.

Obama will surely carry the Jewish vote again, easily. But polls suggesting his approval rating among Jews has slipped, and the Democrats' loss in 2011 of a heavily Jewish New York district in a special congressional election, have given the Republicans hope. All this may be wishful thinking. But it will be one more topic for two old friends to chew over in Israel next weekend. And one thing may be safely predicted. If Mitt Romney wins, and Benjamin Netanyahu remains prime minister, US ties with Israel will never have been closer.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
William Hague, addresses delegates at the Conservative party conference for the last time in his political career in Birmingham  

It’s only natural for politicians like William Hague to end up as journalists

Simon Kelner
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent