By Justin Sink
Mitt Romney plans a trip to Israel this summer to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other political leaders, an aide to the Romney campaign confirmed Monday.
The Republican presidential hopeful, who has a decades-old friendship with Netanyahu dating back to their time working at a consulting group together early in their careers, hopes the trip can shore up support with Jewish voters ahead of November's election. He also plans to meet with Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, and Israeli President Shimon Peres during a brief stop in the country.
The Romney team sees Israeli relations as a potential weakness for President Obama, who has not visited the country since his election, although Obama did visit during the 2008 presidential primary season. Romney has repeatedly accused Obama of "throwing Israel under the bus" and having "visibly warmed to the Palestinian cause." He has said if elected president, Israel would be the first country he visits.
Obama's campaign team said Monday that if Romney wanted to make Israel into a campaign issue, the presumptive Republican nominee would need to detail how his foreign policy would break with that of the president's.
"Gov. Romney has said he would do the opposite of what President Obama has done in our relations with Israel. Now he must specify how," said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt in a statement. "Does that mean he would reverse President Obama’s policies of sending Israel the largest security assistance packages in history? Does it mean he would let Israel stand alone at the United Nations, or that he would stop funding the Iron Dome system? Does it mean he would abandon the coalition working together to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions?"
Going overseas and appearing to undermine the president can be a difficult political maneuver, as congressional Republicans who have urged Romney to consider visiting the Middle Eastern country have noted.
“It’s a very good idea, but strike the right tone,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). “Do not utter Barack Obama’s name with regard to policy in Israel. He can go there and reiterate his record, build some confidence in the Israeli people and send a message to Americans [about] what kind of a relationship he would have and what kind of policy he would have toward Israel.”
Other Republicans, including Reps. Pete Sessions (Texas), Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Allen West (Fla.), have also argued a visit to Israel could help Romney politically.
“It’s not just a political thing, it’s the right thing to do,” said West. “I think the most important title the president has is commander in chief, and you need to be able to go out there to some of those critical areas."
Still, Romney faces an uphill battle with American Jews, according to a Gallup survey released last month. In that poll, the president led Romney 64-29 percent among Jewish voters. But that spread is smaller than in past years, and the Romney campaign believes that peeling off Jewish voters could pay big dividends, especially in swing states like Florida.
The trip will be Romney's fourth to Israel, according to The New York Times; during his most recent trip, in January 2011, Romney spent three days in the country during a visit that also included stops in Afghanistan and Jordan.
— Cameron Joseph contributed to the reporting of this article.