Op-Ed: Romney is more than a fair-weather friend of Israel

WASHINGTON (JTA) — At the end of the month, Mitt Romney will visit Jerusalem. It has become a ritual of American politics for presidential candidates to pay a visit to Israel, but this is certainly not Romney’s first trip to Israel — this will mark his fourth visit — and it won’t be his last.

I’ve known Mitt Romney for a long time, and what I know makes his sincerity and deep commitment to the security of the State of Israel part of his core.

That commitment flows from his understanding of Israel’s society and history. Romney is a democrat, with a small “d.” Israel is a thriving democracy, living in mortal danger throughout its modern history. Romney is full of admiration not only for Israel’s democratic political order, but also for the way Israelis have defended themselves against all odds since Israel’s founding as a state in 1948.

By sheer coincidence, Romney is an old and personal friend of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Romney’s first job after finishing up at Harvard was at the Boston Consulting Group, and Netanyahu was working there at the time and sat in an office down the hall. The two struck up a friendship and have remained close. If Romney were to become president, it would be an extraordinary chapter in U.S.-Israeli relations.

“There is little precedent,” The New York Times wrote recently, “for two politicians of their stature to have such a history together that predates their entry into government.”

Certainly Israel could use a close friend in the White House these days.

Israel’s position in the Middle East has become more precarious than at any time since the Yom Kippur War in 1973. It faces grave challenges and even existential threats. Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons while making no secret of its hatred for Israel and its desire to wipe it off the map of the Middle East.

Thanks to the revolution in Egypt, the future of the Camp David Accords and peace on Israel’s southern flanks hangs in the balance. To Israel’s north, in Syria, we see the brutality that some of Israel’s neighbors are capable of exercising even against their own people. And as we saw this week in Bulgaria, remorseless terrorists continue to attack Israeli civilians around the world.

Israel has always insisted, rightly, on defending itself by itself. It doesn’t want or need others to fight its battles. But it has also always looked to the United States as an ally in the same fight for freedom and the right to live in peace.

Over the last three years, however, the U.S.-Israeli relationship has been troubled.

President Obama does not seem to have personal affection for the Jewish state. He has publicly castigated Israel, including at the United Nations. He was caught on a hot microphone denigrating Israel’s prime minister, and when Netanyahu came to Washington he received him with marked coolness, neglecting to hold the customary joint news conference before asking the Israeli leader to exit through a rear door.

Far more significant than these indignities has been the relative passivity of the president toward the mounting threat posed by Iran. Even as the ayatollahs have pressed forward with their bomb-building project, and even as they continue directing genocidal threats toward Israel, Obama has naively sought to “engage” Iran in “dialogue.” Through this process, the Iranians have gained what they needed most: time. According to the latest intelligence reports, they are using that time to rush forward and realize their nuclear ambitions.

When ordinary Iranians bravely took to the streets in 2009 to protest their country’s stolen election, the Obama administration was shamefully silent. We cannot say what would have happened had America’s moral authority been brought to bear, but we can say that with the bloody suppression of the protesters, a once-in-a-generation chance to rid the world of a vicious regime was missed.

The failed record of Barack Obama’s diplomacy suggests he does not take seriously the threatening words of the Iranians and is therefore not taking seriously the threat they present to both Israel and the United States. If Iran is permitted to acquire nuclear weapons, it will dominate the Middle East, igniting proxy wars with impunity and making nuclear terrorism a perpetual and horrific danger.

We need a leader in the White House who both understands these perils and will act to avert them. We cannot afford to wait until the dangers are already upon us.

As president, Obama has toured the world and toured the Middle East, choosing Cairo as the location to deliver a major address. Yet he has yet to visit Israel, our closest ally in the region. He seems to labor under the illusion that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute lies at the center of the Middle East’s problems, even as the region is wracked by war and revolution unrelated to Israel.

Mitt Romney has a different view. He understands that Israel is targeted by the region’s failed states as a convenient scapegoat. He also understands that there is a worldwide campaign to demonize the Jewish state. It is for this very reason that he has pledged that his first foreign trip as president will be to Jerusalem. He intends to send a signal to the world — and especially to Israel’s adversaries — that the United States is not a fair-weather friend of Israel, but a partner in an abiding relationship based upon a common commitment to our most fundamental values.

Norm Coleman served as a Republican U.S. senator from Minnesota from 2003 to 2009, and currently is Of Counsel at Hogan Lovells US LLP.