Editor's Note: Elliott Abrams is former senior director for the Near East and deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush administration. He is now a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he writes the blog Pressure Points.
By Elliott Abrams, CFR.org
With the exception of Ron Paul, every one of the Republican candidates on the stage at Constitution Hall is a strong supporter of the alliance between the United States and Israel. In Tuesday night’s debate as in previous outings, they stated in compelling terms their understanding of why the friendship and cooperation between Israel and our country is of great value to us. For the most part they did not blink at the possibility of a military strike on Iran as a last resort and as an outcome preferable to permitting Iran to become a nuclear weapons state.
To these necessarily conditional statements–conditional because the precise situation months or years down the road is course unclear, and will depend in large part on what actions the United States takes in the interim–Mitt Romney added a specific promise. He would, he said, make a visit to Israel his first foreign trip.
This promise will be attacked by the usual suspects, from The New York Times to Democratic Party spokesmen defending the Obama Administration to Arab diplomats. And among the things they will say is that it is a gimmick.
In his nearly three years in office, President Obama has never visited Israel though he visited both Cairo and Riyadh very early on. President Bush visited Israel only in his seventh year in office, though Israelis did not much complain because he was so clearly and strongly supportive of the Jewish State year after year. President Clinton first visited in October 1994, after nearly three years in office. President Reagan never visited Israel, nor did President George H.W. Bush. President Carter visited in March 1979, after 26 months in office. Typically a president’s first visit abroad is to Canada.
So what Romney has promised would be a first. It would be a remarkable signal to the Middle Eastern states and to the Europeans that the Obama era of distancing from Israel is over. At a moment of instability in the region it would visibly restore one solid pillar: the American-Israel alliance. For the Turks wondering how far to go in their new hostility to Israel, the Iranian ayatollahs thinking about whether our pledge to stop their nuclear weapons programs is real, Jordanians and Moroccans asking if we will support moderate reform against the forces of radicalism–the list is long–the symbolic power of such a visit would be immense.
I am glad that neither Romney nor any other candidate promised to move the U.S.Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, for that is indeed a gimmick. This promise has been made many times before but once in office presidents keep postponing it and postponing it–and then they leave office. Such a pledge is simply not credible. Romney’s promise is so easy to keep that he would have to do it, as he must have known when he made it. As noted he’ll be attacked for it: he’ll be accused of pandering and of risking our relations with the Arab world. But the gesture of making Israel his first foreign trip would instantly communicate more effectively than any other that a foreign policy radically different from that of President Obama was now in place. Any Republican who replaces President Obama in 2013 should “take the pledge” and make similar travel plans.