What do Israelis think about presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt
It is a question that will be heard many times before the US elections.
It is a question that will be asked by journalists looking for an angle in the
run-up to the November 6 ballot. And it is a question that will be asked by
American Jews as well as by Christian supporters of Israel.
For most the
answer will just satisfy curiosity; for a few it might actually sway a
For Israelis at this point in the campaign, after a grueling
primary season and just before the Republican National Convention, the answer is
As Benny Cohen, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s former spokesman
and a partner in a leading Tel Aviv public relations firm, put it, “Israelis
don’t know anything about him.”
They are likely to learn more over the
next few days as the media covers his 36- hour visit that will begin Saturday
night. But right now, Romney – for Israelis – is largely an unknown
Like people everywhere, Israelis are pretty much concentrated
on themselves and their own problems. Their knowledge of US politics begins and
ends with a few big-name politicians who have been around a long time and have
spoken out on our issues.
Sen. John Kerry is a familiar name here, as is
Sen. John McCain – both because of their presidential runs. Even, maybe, Rep.
Eric Cantor or Sen. Dianne Feinstein. People were familiar with the late senator
Ted Kennedy, and they knew of Joe Biden even before he became vice
But Romney? A one-time Massachusetts governor without any
track record on Israel? Why should the average Israeli know anything about him?
Some Americans know him from his leadership of the Salt Lake City Winter
Olympics in 2002. But that event – let alone the management of that event – did
not have much resonance here.
Any Romney name recognition among the
public largely comes from the primaries over the past few months, and speeches
he has given blasting US President Barack Obama for his Middle East policies.
Few Israelis have ever heard of Bain Capital, where he used to work. Few can
tell you what his religion is (Mormon). Fewer still can say where he stands on
issues beyond Israel.
With Syria imploding, Egypt dramatically changing
and Iran spinning its way to a nuclear weapon, the US election has not yet
become a dominant issue in the Israeli media. As Cohen said, neither the Hebrew
press nor the politicians are paying that much attention yet to the campaign.
Until they do, Romney will largely remain unfamiliar.
What the Israeli
public does know about Romney is that he is not Obama – reason enough, in the
minds of many, to like him.
A poll carried out by the Begin-Sadat Center
for Strategic Studies last month asked Israelis who would better promote
Israel’s interests, Obama or Romney.
Twenty-nine percent said Romney,
while 22% said Obama. Fully 49% said they didn’t know, an astounding figure
considering that Israelis generally – but not always – like and trust sitting US
What is also telling about that figure is that Romney
outpolled Obama, even though he has absolutely no track record on
Romney’s rhetoric is good – he says all the right things
regarding the changes in the Middle East and Iran – but he has no paper trail.
Nevertheless, more Israelis believe he will be better for the country than
The reason seems to be a lingering distrust of
Though polls show that Israeli attitudes toward the president have
improved since the beginning of his term, he has still – for many – not passed
the “kishka” test.
Israelis, always feeling vulnerable, want an American
president who not only likes Israel the way he likes Taiwan or New Zealand, but
loves Israel, feels something special toward it. That is why Israelis liked
George W. Bush, and also why they liked Bill Clinton – though many
disagreed with his Mideast direction. Still, Clinton went out of his way to
demonstrate deep personal friendship for Israel.
Obama – more cerebral,
less emotional – has not done so.
Obama, even when everyone from
President Shimon Peres on down attests to the unprecedented security cooperation
he has overseen, has not transmitted to the Israeli public a feeling of caring
for the country in a special way.
Does Romney have that “warm place in
his heart” for Israel? Nobody seems to know yet. His trip here will be Israel’s
first real chance to gauge that for itself.