Perhaps the clearest winner in Monday night’s presidential debate on foreign policy was Israel.
The tiny state was mentioned more than two dozen times, with both President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Gov. Romney going out of their way to declare their unwavering support for Jerusalem and their determination to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
The president, who several weeks ago in a “60 Minutes” interview, described Israel as “one of our closest allies in the region,” this time referred to the Jewish state as “our greatest ally in the region.”
And when Romney criticized Obama for not visiting Israel during a trip to the region in 2009 when he gave his major foreign policy address in Cairo, Obama responded emotionally by recalling his trip to Israel in 2008, as a presidential candidate. He said his visits to Yad Vashem and the border town of Sderot, under constant missile attack from Gaza at the time, underscored for him the need to protect Israel.
On Iran, both men asserted that while war was the last resort, and should be avoided if at all possible, they would take military action if Israel were attacked. But in the meantime they preferred tough economic sanctions to squeeze Iran and bring the mullahs to the negotiating table.
Romney, who often during the campaign has accused Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus,” talked tougher Monday night in proclaiming his allegiance to Israel, and pointedly noted his warm relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but did not indicate a substantive difference in Mideast policy.
He said he would not want to “get drawn into a military conflict” in Syria, and that his goal was “to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peace and diplomatic means.”
There was virtually no mention by either candidate of plans to end the Israeli-Palestinian standoff.
Some analysts suggested that Romney, in trying to convince undecided voters that he was not a warmonger eager to get the U.S. involved in a third foreign conflict, sought to protect his emerging lead in the polls by moving to the center.
Obama played up the fact that he has the experience as commander-in-chief of knowing when to take bold action, as in the decision to kill Osama bin Laden, and when to emphasize diplomacy or, in the case of Iran, international economic sanctions.
A poll by the Pew Research center earlier this month found that independent voters clearly want the U.S. “less involved” in Mideast conflicts (by a 72 percent to 19 percent margin), and both candidates seemed to get the message since neither spoke of specific actions they would take in dealing with the region.
Did the third debate, with a more aggressive Obama and gentler Romney, change the minds of voters in this tight race?
Probably not in any significant way. More likely it confirmed the views most Americans already have of the candidates; Romney spoke of restoring American strength in its dealings around the world and Obama talked of maintaining a steady hand amid the international turbulence. Both men, whenever possible, left foreign policy behind to explain why they would do a better job of improving the domestic economy, which remains the primary concern of the electorate. That was reflected in their closing statements, which emphasized their contrasting approaches on how best to restore economic growth and confidence.
Israelis may breathe a bit easier after hearing Obama and Romney pledge their undying loyalty, and their commitment to protect Israel from Iran. (Or they may dismiss such talk as campaign rhetoric.) But Americans, including the great majority of Jewish voters, will be choosing the man they think is best equipped to ease their financial worries, echoing Bill Clinton’s prescient 1992 analysis of what wins presidential elections. Twenty years later, “it’s [still] the economy, stupid.”