President Barack Obama, who hasn't set foot in Israel since a pre-election trip in 2008, would go there if he wins in November, an aide said Monday. The official, former deputy assistant defense secretary for the Middle East Colin Kahl, scoffed that Republican criticisms of Obama for not visiting Israel since taking office were "a distraction" from real policy issues.
"We can expect him to visit Israel in a second term should he be reelected," Kahl told reporters on an Obama campaign conference call.
Kahl underlined that former president Ronald Reagan never visited Israel and that former president George W. Bush only went in the final year of his second term. "Obviously, Republicans weren't criticizing him for his commitment on Israel as a result of that travel itinerary." Romney has said that he would make Israel his first trip abroad as president.
"I don't really think this is a serious policy difference. I think it's basically a distraction," Kahl said. "Being a friend to Israel, at least in our view, shouldn't be judged purely by a travel itinerary."
The Obama campaign conference call aimed to criticize Romney on foreign policy as the Republican standard-bearer prepared to make his first foray overseas as a candidate, with stops in Britain, Israel, and Poland. The incumbent has seen his support among Jewish voters drop since the 2008 election, though he still leads the challenger by better than a two-to-one margin, according to a Gallup poll in June. Kahl, who was on the call with top Obama campaign advisor Robert Gibbs and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, hammered Romney for telling an evangelical Christian group in June that his approach to Israel would be "by and large" to "just look at the things the president has done and do the opposite."
"That would mean slashing money, and cutting back on support for programs like (the missile defense program called) Iron Dome, and abandoning efforts to forge a two-state solution, and throwing Israel under the bus at the United Nations, and lessening our pressure on Iran," Kahl said. "I mean, if he really means that, I mean, I wish him the best of luck with that argument."
Kahl also ramped up pressure on Romney to spell out his strategy for handling the stand-off over Iran's suspect nuclear program, which Washington and its allies view as masking an effort to get the atomic bomb.
"The American people I think expect him to outline a plan to pressure Iran, and to actually say exactly what he would do differently from what President Obama is already doing," he told reporters on the call.
Romney has accused the president of "trepidation, ineptitude and weakness" towards Iran and vowed to toughen economic sanctions (which Obama has sharply escalated several times, to an unprecedented degree) while ramping up prospects of military action (which Obama has repeatedly and explicitly said is an option).
Kahl said Obama had kept the option of military action "on the table and at the ready" but wants to be sure to exhaust diplomatic options.
"If Romney thinks it's time to use military action against Iran and abandon diplomacy prematurely, I think he owes it to the American people to actually say so," Kahl said. Romney's policy towards Iran's nuclear program is spelled out on his official campaign site, but it appears to differ very little in substance from Obama's current approach.
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams hit back hard at Team Obama, saying that "it is clear that President Obama's foreign policy is confused, ineffective, and has weakened our influence in every region of the world."