By Justin Sink
President Obama will make his first trip to Israel as president if he wins a second term, his campaign said Monday.
The Obama campaign set that expectation during a conference call intended to undercut GOP rival Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel on Saturday.
Romney has hit Obama hard for not visiting the U.S. ally since a 2008 campaign trip. He’s said Israel will be the first country he visits as president, seeking to portray Obama’s foreign policy as weakening American influence throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East.
The Obama campaign appeared interested in turning aside that storyline on Monday.
It came to the call armed with factoids, noting that President Reagan didn’t visit Israel at all during his presidency, and that President George W. Bush didn’t make it there until his second term.
Kahl also dismissed calls for the president to visit Israel as “basically a distraction” before highlighting Obama’s efforts to strengthen U.S.-Israeli ties.
Romney’s campaign pounced on that remark.
“President Obama thinks visiting our closest ally in the Middle East is a ‘distraction,’ that Hugo Chavez is not a ‘serious’ threat and that the right response to Russia is to promise more ‘flexibility’ in exchange for giving him ‘space’ before the election,” said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “It is clear that President Obama’s foreign policy is confused, ineffective, and has weakened our influence in every region of the world.”
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Foreign policy has been seen as a strength of Obama’s campaign, given the mission to kill Osama bin Laden and Obama’s popular efforts to unwind the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
But Republicans have made it clear they think they can take political advantage of Obama’s policy toward Israel. During a bus tour last month, Romney told reporters he would do “the opposite” of Obama with regard to Israel.
Obama has a famously frigid relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2011, Netanyahu appeared to lecture Obama during an on-camera display on the folly of basing a future Palestinian state on Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
After his election, Obama sought to reset U.S. relations with Arab countries in the Middle East, making a memorable speech in Cairo where he reached out to the Arab world.
Romney is hoping to use his trip — which will also include stops in London and Warsaw — to burnish his foreign policy bona fides and shore up support among Christian evangelicals and Jews. He is expected to meet with Netanyahu and emphasize the personal relationship between the two political leaders, who worked together at a consulting firm in the 1970s.
The Obama campaign, seeking to knock some of the wind from Romney’s sails, said the Republican must prove his overseas trip isn’t just a “photo-op and fundraising tour,” in the words of Kahl.
“He’ll need to prove to the American people that he sees foreign-policy issues as worthy of substantive discussion rather than just generality and sound bites in this campaign,” campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs said on the call. “It’s widely accepted that President Obama has an exceptionally strong record on national-security issues, and I think quite frankly Mitt Romney is having a tough time making an argument against the president of the United States on these issues.”
The Obama campaign argues Romney’s trip lacks the gravitas of candidate Obama’s 2008 travels. It highlighted Romney’s plan to fundraise and the fact he has no events scheduled with U.S. troops stationed abroad.
Gibbs, returning to the Obama team after leaving the White House in 2011, pointed out that then-Sen. Obama met with troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait and gave a number of extensive speeches and interviews to demonstrate his foreign policy qualifications. During that same trip, Obama also visited Israel, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian political leaders and touring disputed areas.
The campaign went on to criticize Romney’s comment that he would do the “opposite” of Obama on Israel.
“Frankly, all we’ve gotten from Romney to this point is tough talk, while the actual substance that he put forward, whether on sanctions or military preparedness, mirrors exactly precisely what President Obama has already done,” said Kahl.
Questioned about Romney’s personal ties to Netanyahu, Kahl pointed to the prime minister’s Sunday show interviews over the weekend, in which the Israeli leader repeatedly declined to weigh in on the American election.
“He basically avoided saying anything about Gov. Romney, so I think in that case Netanyahu thinks we’re right, and thinks the politics of this are less relevant than the substance,” said Kahl. “I think it’s incumbent upon Gov. Romney to try to criticize what the president’s actually done — I think that’s hard.”
Predictably, the Romney campaign disagreed with the Obama team’s framing of the president’s foreign-policy record.
“In no region of the world is our country’s influence any stronger than it was four years ago,” said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams.
— Updated at 9:19 p.m.