JERUSALEM—Mitt Romney arrived in Israel Saturday looking to reset an overseas trip that was aimed at proving him to be a capable leader on the world stage. But his overseas debut was undermined almost from the very moment he arrived in London, the first stop of his seven-day tour, when he admitted he found the city's Olympic preparations "disconcerting."
While Romney later dialed back the assessment, his comments set off a firestorm within the British media-- which labeled him "Mitt the Twit"--and prompted rebukes from key officials, including Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson.
But Romney's rough few days in London could be nothing compared to the task ahead in Israel. While the presumptive Republican nominee will be on somewhat friendlier territory—he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been friends since they worked together at the Boston Consulting Group in 1976—Romney will be navigating far trickier diplomatic territory in what is considered one of the most sensitive foreign policy regions in the world.
His every word and action will face even greater scrutiny than in Great Britain--as Romney faces intense pressure to explain how he would handle the Middle East differently than Obama.
Back home, Romney has repeatedly cast himself as someone who would be a far friendlier ally to Israel. The GOP candidate has repeatedly said he would "do the opposite" of President Barack Obama when it comes to the Middle East—though he hasn't specified exactly what that means in terms of policy.
Speaking before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nev., last Tuesday, Romney issued a blistering critique of Obama's handling of Israel, trashing him for his "shabby treatment" of leaders in the region. In one of his harshest slaps to Obama's foreign policy agenda yet, Romney trashed the president for "lecturing Israel's leaders." Israel, Romney said, deserves "better than what they have received from the leader of the free world."
It was a red meat speech to Republicans and supporters of Israel—and no doubt was timed to stir up support for Romney ahead of his visit here. But Romney won't be able to repeat that rhetoric during his two-day visit here. He faces pressure to explain his Middle East policy while at the same time abiding by his rule of not criticizing the president while overseas—a dilemma that could be tricky for the GOP candidate as he seeks to distinguish himself against Obama here.
But Dan Senor, a top foreign policy adviser to Romney, insisted the GOP candidate is coming to Israel to "learn" rather than "contrast" his policies with Obama. He cited the Romney campaign's cooperation with Daniel Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel who was appointed by Obama, as a sign that former Massachusetts governor wasn't seeking to undermine the president while abroad.
"Our approach is no surprises on either side," Senor said—adding that Romney wasn't unveiling new policy in the region because it could be interpreted as "inherent critique" of the current administration.
"We are working very hard to make sure we don't do that," Senor insisted. "We don't want to criticize the president on foreign soil."