A Tale of Two Trips

— by Elizabeth Leibowitz

Perhaps the most interesting moment in Monday’s presidential debate was one of President Obama’s best lines of the night:

…when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors, I didn’t attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.” He continued, saying, “I went down to the border towns of Sderot … I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children’s bedrooms, and I was reminded of … what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles.

Now, let me begin by saying that I know Romney visited Yad Vashem in 2007 and traveled to Sderot in 2011. But when the details of the two men’s trips to Israel as presidential candidates are contrasted and evaluated for who was more “presidential,” only one individual fits the bill.

President Obama visited Israel during his 2008 presidential campaign and met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and – unlike Governor Mitt Romney – with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He traveled to Sderot, where he talked with families who faced the daily fear of Palestinian rocket fire. He visited Yad Vashem, where he laid a wreath on a tomb that contains ashes from Nazi extermination camps. Obama’s trip to Israel greatly affected his actions once in office, prompting him to provide record aid to Israel, restore the country’s Qualitative Military Edge, fund the Iron Dome missile defense system, and more.

Governor Romney had quite a different trip as a candidate. He did meet with Peres, Netanyahu, and various other Israeli leaders — though he opted to cancel his meeting with the Labor Party’s Shelly Yachimovich. He chose to only meet with Fayyad, selecting to return to Jerusalem on the eve of Tisha B’Av to focus on his speech as well as his $50,000-a-plate fundraiser. Standing in front of his supporters, Romney spoke broadly about his stances on the Middle East, all the while dishing out subtle jabs at the President and breaking the “politics stop at the water’s edge” protocol. The next day, he managed to stretch U.S.-Palestinian relations even further when he chalked up the difference between Israeli and Palestinian economies to “culture.” During Romney’s August 2012 trip as a candidate, there was no trip to Sderot, no visit to Yad Vashem, and no conversations with average Israelis about their hopes for the future. Instead, his trip to Israel served a political purpose.

There is only one candidate in the 2012 race whose trip to Israel was presidential and whose actions afterward were presidential-President Barack Obama.

Ayalon: “Israel had to end Freeze to avoid seeming weak.”

Admits that Gaza withdrawal was an excruciatingly painful mistake

In the aftermath of Israel’s decision on September 26 to end its ten-month construction freeze within existing West Bank settlements as originally scheduled, one of Israel’s leading diplomats, Danny Ayalon, deputy foreign minister and the number two man in Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party tells Shalom TV President Mark S. Golub that Israel had no choice but to end the settlement freeze in order to retain any credibility in the Arab world and in international circles.

In an exclusive interview with Shalom TV conducted with Minister Ayalon in New York City, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister makes his government’s position clear.

“I’ll tell you Mark, the international scene is cruel. There is no real mercy for the weak and there is no second chance for people who cannot sustain themselves. It’s very cynical, it’s very hypocritical. And that is why we have to stand by our word, so our word will mean something–not just for us but for the international community in the future as well.”

Asked if the recent talks between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas gives him hope or confidence that a real peace process is underway, Minister Ayalon answers, “Unfortunately at this point I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel–or if I see the light it is an oncoming train. There is one thing we asked the Palestinians to recognize–that Israel is a homeland of the Jewish People. They refused.”

Mr. Ayalon also makes reference to his meeting with Salam Fayyad in which the Palestinian prime minister walked out of a joint press conference at the United Nations rather than sign a statement saying that the “two state solution” was for “two separate peoples.”

For Mr. Ayalon, Israelis don’t need the Palestinians to acknowledge that “Israel is a Jewish state” for their own self-identity; rather, Israel needs the Palestinians to say it in Arabic “so there will be a finality of conflict and an end of claims.”

“We don’t want a settlement with Palestinians whereby the children of the Palestinians are still taught that Haifa is theirs, Tel Aviv is theirs, Jaffa is theirs; this is what we mean by their recognizing Israel as the “Jewish” state.”

Ayalon, who was one of the chief proponents for Israel’s evacuation of Gaza when he was part of the Ariel Sharon government, is also asked by Golub whether, in retrospect, he feels the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was a mistake.

“Yes, it was,” says Ayalon candidly, “and in hindsight we shouldn’t have done it because it was excruciatingly painful.”

But, for Ayalon, it is an event from which Israel can learn.

“We have a lesson that we cannot cede territory without a full agreement without a full commitment of the other side–and with enforcement to make sure that no terrorism and no violence can come out of any territory that we will ever leave in the future.”