By Cameron Joseph - 05/14/12 09:00 AM EDT
Mitt Romney should visit Israel soon, Republican lawmakers say, claiming that such a trip would highlight the fact that President Obama has not been there during his first term.
Congressional Republicans told The Hill that there would be many benefits for Romney should he go to Israel, explaining that it would both advance U.S.-Israeli relations and help him politically.
Romney, who has a decades-old friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has promised that Israel would be his first foreign trip as president. He has slammed Obama for “throwing Israel under the bus,” and when Netanyahu’s father died two weeks ago, his campaign made a point to send out a public letter extending his condolences.
Obama visited Israel in 2008 while he was a presidential candidate but has not been back since. He has been to 30 countries, so far, as commander-in-chief, including Ghana, Ireland and El Salvador.
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Some GOP lawmakers cautioned that Romney would need to avoid criticizing the president while overseas.
“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 towards Israel.”
“It’s not just a political thing, it’s the right thing to do,” said Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.). “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.”
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said that while he knows “the schedule is tight” for Romney, a trip would “absolutely” be a good idea.
Romney’s campaign declined to speculate on whether the presumptive 2012 presidential nominee will visit Israel between now and the election, but pointed out that he’s been there three times, most recently in 2011.
While Jewish voters made up just two percent of the electorate in 2008, they are closer to 5 percent of the vote in Florida and Nevada, two key battleground states.
A recent poll showed Obama leading Romney with Jewish voters 61 percent to 28 percent, a dip from the 78 percent he had in 2008 but an improvement from September, when he’d slipped to 50 percent in polling.
Romney has a thin resume on international affairs compared to his economic experience, and polling shows Americans give Obama high marks on national security. A trip to Israel could help Romney strengthen a perceived weakness.
Furthermore, it could help fire up Jewish donors. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who gave $16 million to Newt Gingrich’s super-PAC, has long been a major backer of Israeli causes. He has met with Romney allies and shown signs he might be open to helping the former Massachusetts governor in the general election.
Israel is important to evangelical Christians as well. Romney led Obama by 68 percent to 19 percent in a recent poll of white evangelicals, a huge gap but one that’s similar to Obama’s performance with that group in 2008.
Jewish Democratic lawmakers are split on whether Obama should make a state visit before the election. Some fear that scheduling a visit now would look overtly political.
“This close to the election I would think it would not be a good idea,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). “I don’t think it’s a big deal. I think what’s important is the policy, not the tourism.”
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) said he has long encouraged Obama to make the trip.
“I told him so, I wrote him so. I think it’s always a good idea of every president to go,” he said.
Bush didn’t travel to Israel until the final year of his presidency, while Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush never went during their times in office. President Jimmy Carter did go there as did President Clinton, who visited during his first term.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) agreed Obama should visit. “Anytime Barack Obama would go to Israel would be a good time,” she said. “Before [the election] or after, but he definitely ought to go.”
Schakowsky took a long pause when asked if Obama should have visited already.
“I don’t know — I don’t want to second-guess the administration on the timing of such a trip,” she said. “Clearly they’re an important ally and he’s made that clear in every single way in being supportive of Israel.”
The Obama campaign did not comment for this article.
Obama and Netanyahu have had a sometimes-testy relationship. Many prominent Jewish Americans were unhappy with Obama’s remarks last May that Israel’s 1967 borders should be the basis of any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Some were appeased by his strongly worded speech at the United Nations in September 2011 blasting the Palestinian Authority for pushing for a statehood resolution. Others note that the Obama administration has delivered more than $200 million in military aid to Israel.
News reports indicate that the administration has sold 55 “bunker buster” bombs to Israel, something the George W. Bush administration hesitated on.