News & Politics

5 Ways Romney and Obama Will Shamelessly Pander to Israel Tonight

President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will duke it out tonight over which candidate is better for Israel.

If there’s one thing for certain heading into tonight’s presidential debate on foreign policy, it’s this: Israel will be mentioned, and mentioned a lot. President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will duke it out over which candidate would be better for Israel, even though their policy differences towards the country are minimal.

Despite that fact, though, Israel has been a major factor during the 2012 election, due to a small sliver of advocates for Israel pumping millions of dollars of cash into the electoral system. The influence of the likes of Sheldon Adelson and other right-wing Zionists has pushed the debate over Israel in this country far to the right--away from any rational discussion of U.S. policy towards a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

So with that in mind, here’s 5 ways the candidates will pander to Israel during tonight’s debate.

1. Who’s Tougher on Iran?

The weekend’sbig story was a front-page report in the New York Times that Iran and the United States had agreed to one-on-one talks over the Iranian nuclear program. The administration quickly denied the report, though NBC News followed up with an article claiming that there have been “back-channel talks between the U.S. and Iran about meeting bilaterally on the Iranians’ nuclear program – but that no meeting has been agreed to.”

Regardless of the accuracy of the report, the news will likely prompt moderator Bob Schieffer to ask the candidates first about Iran. And then the pandering will begin.

The Obama administration, with the prodding of a zealous Congress backed by the Israel lobby, has instituted devastating sanctions on Iran over that country’s continued pursuit of a nuclear energy program. The sanctions have wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy and led to increases in food prices, food shortages, high unemployment and medicine shortages.

The credit for the fact that the international community has focused in on harming Iran for its pursuit of nuclear energy--the West suspects it’s to build a nuclear weapon--goes to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed and prodded Western nations to stop Iran from pursuing its civilian nuclear energy program.

So when Schieffer asks about Iran, Obama will point to the sanctions regime that is pushing Iran’s economy to the brink--and likely point out that the Israeli prime minister has praised the sanctions. As for Romney, he too will cite the sanctions, but vow to institute even tougher ones. “I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have,” Romney vowed during a speech on foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute.

The nub of any disagreement between Obama and Romney will be over a “red line” for the U.S. to draw as a warning to Iran that if they cross it, an attack will come. Obama’s stated “red line” is an actual nuclear weapon, which the CIA and Mossad say Iran has not yet decided to build. Romney’s red line, though he has gone back and forth on this, is nuclear weapons “capability,” a hazy term meant to delineate when a country reaches the capacity to break out and build a weapon if they decide to do so.

Regardless of any disagreement, though, expect to hear a lot of about who would be tougher on Iran. The debate has been effectively narrowed between who can wreak havoc on Iran’s economy and who would be prepared to go to war. And much of that language is meant to please Israel and its ardent advocates in the U.S.

2. Military Aid to Israel

Before Obama’s first term began, Israel was already the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world. They still are--but the Obama administration has boosted the aid to record levels. The president will surely tout this record.

“The Obama administration has increased security assistance to Israel every single year since the president took office, providing nearly $10 billion in aid -- covering roughly a fifth of Israel's defense budget -- over the past three years,” according to Colin Kahl, an advisor to the Obama presidential campaign. Kahl also notes that Obama has “championed efforts to provide Israel with$275 million over and above its annual [military aid] to help finance Iron Dome, an anti-rocket system that has already saved Israeli lives.”

Romney will promise even more aid to Israel. In fact, he has already done so. In his foreign policy speech earlier this month, he vowed to “work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination.”

3. Who Will Help Israel as the Arab Spring Rages?

The attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya has put the Arab revolutions and their aftermath front and center in the debate over foreign policy. One of the major issues likely to come up will be how the Arab upheaval affects Israel’s regional security.

Mitt Romney has pointed to the attack in Benghazi as the prime example for the Obama administration’s “failure” to grapple with the Arab Spring. This alleged “failure” may be coupled with an attack by Romney that points to an Islamist wave coming to power across the Middle East, with negative consequences for Israel. Not mentioned, of course, will be the fact that the reason why it is having negative consequences is that Israel continues to occupy Palestinian land--and the newly democratic Arab countries want an end to the occupation.

Obama will point out his record on military aid to Israel, and say that the assistance is helping Israel grapple with the challenges of the Arab uprising.

4. Personal Relationships with Israeli Leaders

A perception of Obama as being “cold” to Israel has been pushed relentlessly by the right during the president’s first term. Obama, they correctly note, has not visited Israel during his time in office.

The president may not be able to dispute that fact, but he can emphasize his meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and the frequent trips to Israel made by defense and diplomatic officials. The American people got a preview of this pandering during the vice presidential debate, when Joe Biden (incorrectly) claimed that, “with regard to Bibi, he’s been my friend for 39 years.” Bibi is the Israeli prime minister’s nickname.

Meanwhile, Romney will take any opportunity to tout his personal friendship with Netanyahu. Romney will bring up the fact that he first met Netanyahu in 1976 while both were working at the Boston Consulting Group. “We can almost speak in shorthand,” Romney boasted earlier this year during an interview.

5. What Won’t Be Talked About

For all the ways that Obama and Romney will prove their devotion to Israel’s security, the flipside of this question is what they won’t mention. And what the candidates omit is also one way they will pander to Israel.

Obama’s major flap with Netanyahu was over the issue of continued settlement building in the occupied West Bank. But don’t expect any talk of settlements or peace with the Palestinians at the debate. The obsessive focus on Iran has effectively pushed Palestine off the agenda, and a debate over the building of settlements is not about to take place.

Obama and Romney also won’t mention the blockade of Gaza, which recently jumped back into the news when the Israeli military commandeered another aid boat trying to break the crippling naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

In other words, the Israeli leader will be pleased by watching this debate. The belligerent occupation of Palestinian land will not, unfortunately, be a topic at the debate.

Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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