Tel Aviv – Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign caravan has long packed up and left Jerusalem, but his two-day stopover here on a much-touted foreign tour by the presumed Republican nominee thrust Israel into the limelight of a presidential campaign even more than usual.
Romney’s visit followed in the footsteps of former presidential hopefuls and other aspiring American politicians have made Israel a regular destination to burnish their foreign policy chops and appeal to Jewish voters.
But even though Israelis are generally pleased to be on the receiving end of the attention, experts and officials here expressed anxiety that Israel has become cannon fodder for attacks between Republicans and Democrats — a trend that could eventually undermine the long-cultivated bipartisan support for Israel in Washington.
“Israel has become another one of the factors in the negative campaigning, much more than in any other previous election,” said Peter Medding a political science professor at Hebrew University, who mentioned Romney’s oft-cited quip that President Barack Obama had thrown Israel “under the bus.’’
“Israelis think their best interests are served when Israel is not the center of controversy between the candidates … The nature of the relations between Israel and the U.S. should be bipartisan.’’
Though many experts agree that the ties between the two countries are so robust they can endure in spite of changes in political rule, the fear of eroding bipartisanship stirs up concern that Israel may one day fall out of favor with the party in power.
Indeed, the visit also highlighted the natural rapport between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Republican party, as well as the joint backing both are getting from American Jewish casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.
Standing next to Romney, Netanyahu delivered a blunt assessment that the White House’s strategy of pressuring Iran through sanctions and diplomacy had not prevented Iran “one iota’’ from pushing forward with its nuclear program.
“People should be aware that this is dangerous ground, and you have to be super careful, so it doesn’t look like you’re getting involved, because it could come around and bite you in the rear,’’ said an American Jewish official who frequently meets with Israeli officials.
One day after Romney’s departure, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta arrived in Israel to discuss Iran. The administration has said that its strategy needs more time to show results.
Republican candidates have, for months, used as ammunition to attack the White House the public bickering that has erupted between Obama and Netanyahu over Iran and the Palestinian peace process during the first term. It’s a bid to chip away at the overwhelming backing that American Jews have traditionally given Democratic candidates.
In 2008, Obama was favored by 74 percent of American Jews, second only to his showing among African Americans; now that support is at only 68 percent, according to recent Gallup polling data. Some believe that a slight shift is all that is necessary to help capture a crucial swing state like Florida, where Jews make up a significant chunk of the registered voters.
“If support for Israel is a Republican issue it’s a disconcerting issue,” said a chief geopolitical analyst in Israel, who did not want to speak publicly about domestic politics.
That’s because Israeli relations with the U.S. are an “existential’’ concern for Israel, said analysts.
“Never before has there been a sitting American president who has absorbed so many venomous and hateful attacks for his alleged bad relations with Israel,” wrote Chemi Shalev in Haaretz.
Despite promises not to criticize the White House on foreign soil, Romney managed to get in some not-so-subtle digs at Obama while delivering a foreign policy address on Sunday.
Romney suggested that the administration isn’t taking a tough enough line on Iran, and he chastised the president for rebuking Israeli leaders for veiled threats of a preemptive attack against Tehran’s nuclear program.
Romney said in Israel that he’d keep any disagreements over the Palestinian peace process and Iran private, promising a switch from the public spats that have erupted between the president and Israeli prime minister.
The Obama administration countered that it has improved strategic ties to unprecedented levels, but Romney said in Jerusalem that “standing by Israel does not mean with military and intelligence cooperation alone.’’
“Unfortunately Israel has become an issue of greater partisan debate than it used to,” said David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel website.
To be sure, support for Israel in the U.S. Congress is still overwhelmingly bipartisan. However, a recent public opinion survey commissioned by The Israel Project, testing support of Israel, found significant differences in support for Israel among rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans.
When asked about whether the U.S. should support Israel or the Palestinians, the poll found near rock-bottom support for the Palestinians. However, it also showed 81 percent of Republicans siding with Israel versus just 45 percent of Democrats.
Marcus Sheff, a spokesman for The Israel Project, rejected the notion of a partisan divide, suggesting instead that Democrats are more “nuanced’’ in their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
Others say that the numbers simply reflect a long-running trend in which Democrats and Republicans connect to Israel in different ways. The Republicans are more drawn to Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, and Democrats find common cause with social democrats on the Israeli left, like the Labor party. Indeed, Labor party leaders accused Romney of canceling a scheduled meeting with them at Netanyahu’s insistence.
“Republicans and the Israeli right see common cause on three issues: the land of Israel, religion and family values,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster. “There’s a natural connection between the Israeli left and the Democrats, and vice versa: that’s based on share values of democracy, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and protection of minorities.’’
Shmuel Rosner, a Tel Aviv-based Israeli political commentator, said differences among Republican and Democrat voters on Israel cannot be disputed.
“There are people in the Israeli government who understand that there is a need for Israel to better communicate with the liberal wing of the American Democratic party,” he said. “Its not an easy thing to do. But they aware of it and know that something needs to be done.”