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Courting Bibi

From Mitt Romney’s juvenile $10,000 bet with Rick Perry to Ron Paul’s declaration that death by untreated illnesses is “what freedom is all about,” the Republican presidential candidates haven’t missed an opportunity to sound off-base and out-of-touch with ordinary Americans.

But during a December debate in Des Moines, an exchange between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich brought the campaign to an entirely more surreal level. When Romney criticized Gingrich for his intemperate characterization of Palestinians as an “invented people,” the two men didn’t bother to debate the remark’s substance. Instead, they argued over which of them was better friends with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Then, they debated which of them would be of more use to their buddy “Bibi.”

Gingrich’s remark was ludicrous. Palestinians are no more or less invented than Israelis — or, for that matter, Americans. But Romney didn’t say that. He only objected to Gingrich’s willingness to hurl a foreign-policy firebomb without first consulting Netanyahu. “Before I made a statement of that nature,” Romney said, “I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say, ‘Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?'”

Tactfulness and consultation are, of course, admirable habits. But it’s bizarre that Romney, an unabashed “American exceptionalist,” would plan on letting a foreign official put words in his mouth about such a crucial part of the world. Romney — who has so often accused President Obama of “apologizing” for America — has also scolded President Barack Obama for “chastening” Israel, promising to visit the country before any other should he be elected. Don’t call it apologizing, though.

Sure, Israel is a U.S. ally. But if Obama called another ally — say, French President Nicolas Sarkozy or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia — and asked, “What would you like me to do?” You can be sure Romney would treat that like treason.

Gingrich comes off equally obsequious and un-presidential. In addition to his incendiary comments about Palestinians, he has strongly suggested that he would support an Israeli request for a U.S. invasion of Iran, evoking in the process the questionable claim that Iran intends to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon (which it still does not possess). However one feels about Iran, Gingrich’s willingness to outsource U.S. military policy to Tel Aviv is even more mind-boggling than Romney’s deference on diplomacy.

The underlying GOP argument, tailored to the whims of right-wing evangelical voters, is that Obama has been insufficiently supportive of Israel. But this is absurd. Not only has his administration maintained U.S. military aid to Israel to the tune of $3 billion per year, it has also spent considerable diplomatic capital to quash popular UN resolutions recognizing a Palestinian state and condemning Israel’s illegal settlement policy in the West Bank — favors to Israel that fly in the face of longstanding U.S. policy.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has even said that he “can hardly remember a better period” of U.S. support for Israel.

The GOP’s criticisms are mistaken at best. At worst they send a coded message to certain voters that Obama — whether because of his race, his name, or his father’s religion — is somehow incapable of supporting Israel.

A better critique of Obama’s Israel policy is that it has enabled Israel’s right-wing government to prolong the statelessness of Palestinians at the expense not only of international law, but perhaps even of Israel’s democracy. It bolsters the view that the United States cares little for Arab or Muslim lives, and it furthers the spread of anti-Semitism. No true friend of either Israel or Palestine should support it.

But maybe Gingrich and Romney are only interested in being friends with Bibi.

Peter Certo is an OtherWords and Foreign Policy In Focus editorial assistant at the Institute for Policy Studies. www.ips-dc.org

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