The Magazine

The Real Romney Trip

With the Republican candidate abroad

Aug 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 44 • By FRED BARNES
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In fact, Romney’s concept of culture has nothing to do with race. And Romney aides still on the ground in Jerusalem or at Romney headquarters in Boston were not asked for comment on Erekat’s charge before the AP story appeared. What steps might they have taken if they had been contacted before it was filed? “Those could have included reaching out to Erekat and asking him if he were aware of what Romney actually said,” a Romney aide said. “Was he aware that Romney compared Chile and Ecuador and Mexico and the United States in the same statement and in the same manner as the Palestinians and Israel? Was he aware that Romney had said the same about the United States and France?”

The day before his speech, Romney had met with Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad. It is Fayyad who has tried with some success to change the culture in the West Bank and improve the business climate along the lines suggested by Romney. Erekat’s blast, however, became the story, and the Romney speech morphed into a gaffe.

Gaffe #4. This one was avoidable but understandable. As Romney was leaving the Polish Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw after a ceremony, reporters yelled questions at him about gaffes or the Palestinians. Romney press assistant Rick Gorka was incensed and loudly informed reporters they were being disrespectful of a Polish “holy site” and said they could “kiss my ass.” He soon apologized, but the harm was done.

Eclipsed by the commotion over gaffes was the remarkable character of the Israeli government’s welcome of Romney. Given the fact that Israel will have to work with President Obama for several more months—and possibly four more years—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been expected to welcome Romney, but to be careful not to show excessive enthusiasm. Instead, he praised Romney extravagantly, hugged him, and gave every indication he wants Romney to defeat Obama in the election. 

A month or so before the visit, Netanyahu decided to embrace Romney. When Romney showed up for his first meeting with Netanyahu, whose relationship with Obama is chilly, the prime minister greeted him effusively. He addressed Romney by his first name. “We’ve known each other for many decades, since you were a young man, but for some reason, you still look young,” he said. Romney laughed. “You’ve been a personal friend of mine and a strong friend of the state of Israel, and that’s why it’s a pleasure to see you.”

Netanyahu didn’t stop there. He praised Romney’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars a week earlier in Reno—a speech notable for its strong attack on Obama’s policies. Without mentioning Obama by name, Netanyahu injected his own criticism. “We have to be honest and say that all the sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian [nuclear program] by one iota,” he said.

That Romney was being treated like a head of state rather than a candidate was confirmed when he arrived for talks with President Shimon Peres. Romney was told he should remain in his SUV as a red carpet was rolled out. Then Peres walked slowly to the SUV to greet Romney. Unlike Netanyahu, Peres is thought to be sympathetic to Obama. Yet in its own way, his welcome of Romney was as upbeat as Netanyahu’s.

What’s more, Romney, his wife, and son were invited to a family dinner at Netanyahu’s home. When Romney arrived, he received another exuberant welcome, more praise, and the hug. (It’s hard to imagine Netanyahu hugging Obama.) The prime minister had summoned the Israeli press to witness the occasion outside his home. Netanyahu extolled the speech. He particularly appreciated Romney’s insistence that Iran must be kept from gaining even the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. That, by itself, would create an imminent threat to Israel.

The Netanyahu-Romney talks were friendly but serious. Romney asked if the Iranian people would rally behind the ruling mullahs if Israel attacked the nuclear sites. To explain why he doesn’t think so, Netanyahu told the story of his visit to Uganda in 2005. He’d been invited for the unveiling of a plaque honoring his brother Yonatan, killed in 1976 while leading a daring commando raid that freed 102 Israelis held hostage by terrorists who’d hijacked their plane and been given refuge in Entebbe, Uganda, by dictator Idi Amin.

Netanyahu asked Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni why Ugandans hadn’t rushed to support Amin after Israel invaded their country. The raid, Museveni told him, was a turning point in the effort to oust Amin. It boosted Amin’s opponents by revealing how vulnerable he was. Amin was overthrown in 1979. What Netanyahu was suggesting to Romney is that an attack on Iran’s nuclear program might similarly help undermine the Tehran regime.

 Obama’s unprecedented efforts to undermine Romney’s trip reflect the weakness of his bid for reelection. Has an incumbent president ever before mounted a political offensive by the White House and his campaign to take down a political rival traveling overseas? Never.

Obama pulled out all the stops. Romney’s 36 hours in Israel were bracketed by visits to Israel by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The Clinton stopover was scheduled shortly after Romney’s trip was announced and seemed to have no purpose besides waving the Obama flag. She followed, by two days, a working visit to Israel by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.

Though Obama had little to do with passage of the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act, he scheduled an Oval Office signing ceremony the day before Romney was to fly to Israel. The White House wanted Israeli ambassador Michael Oren to attend and was furious to discover he’d returned to Israel for the Romney trip. As a result, there was no Israeli on stage at the ceremony. The $70 million in new funding is to increase production of the Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system. (Incidentally, at the signing ceremony, Obama said Israel would get $70 billion—without correcting himself or being accused of a gaffe.) Not coincidentally, Defense Secretary Panetta appeared six days later in Israel with Defense Minister Ehud Barak for a photo-op at an Iron Dome site.

The Obama campaign unleashed attacks on Romney by political supporters before and after the trip. In between, Jen Psaki, whose title is “campaign traveling press secretary,” joined an Obama trip on Air Force One to a New York fundraiser to trash Romney. He’s “been fumbling the foreign policy football from country to country,” she told reporters. “And there’s a threshold question that he has to answer for the American people, and that’s whether he is prepared to be commander in chief.”

The Romney trip became an obsession at the White House, all the more so when Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader who became Poland’s president and won a Nobel Peace Prize, endorsed Romney for president. The next day, a Solidarity official said Walesa didn’t speak for the union. As luck would have it, the official had just learned from “our friends in the American trade union central AFL-CIO” that Romney was anti-union.

When Romney returned home last week, campaign aides said they’re eager to improve relations with the press. It won’t be easy. As successful as Romney’s trip was on substantive issues, it solidified the notion that he’s a gaffe machine. It’s unfair and, more often than not, untrue, and it won’t keep him from beating Obama. But it sure won’t help.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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