By AMY TEIBEL
Mitt Romney’s support for Israel will likely earn the presumptive Republican presidential nominee a warm welcome from Israeli leaders when he visits on Sunday – and a frosty reception from Palestinians, who fear he would do little to advance their stalled statehood dreams.
Romney is visiting Israel as part of a three-nation foreign tour that includes Britain and Poland. He hopes it will boost his credentials to direct U.S. national security and diplomacy.
The visit to Israel comes at a time when its leaders are weighing a military attack on Iran, the neighboring regime in Syria is looking increasingly shaky and Mideast peace talks are going nowhere.
Romney, a longtime friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is expected to play up his critique of President Barack Obama’s posture toward the Jewish state and his handling of Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons ambitions.
Israeli political scientist Abraham Diskin says Romney can expect an “enthusiastic” reception, both because of his solid record of pro-Israel comments – and because he’s not Obama.
In an effort to upstage Romney a day before he landed in Israel, the White House announced it was signing legislation expanding military and civilian cooperation with Israel.
Still, with polls showing a close race, Romney hopes this showcase for his pro-Israel stance will help him to woo votes from traditionally Democratic Jewish voters and evangelical Christians who zealously defend Israeli government policy. Obama has not visited Israel since he became president.
Romney already has stumbled in his first international swing as presidential contender by suggesting that British officials might not be prepared to pull off a successful Olympics. In an interview with NBC News, he called London’s problems with games preparation “disconcerting,” and the remark sparked sharp responses from Britain’s top officials. Romney attended swimming events in London on Saturday morning ahead of his planned flight to Tel Aviv.
In Israel, Romney will be meeting with Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, President Shimon Peres and Israeli opposition leaders.
He will not see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Abbas aide Nimr Hamad said, though he will be sitting down with the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, in Jerusalem. The Romney campaign said the likely GOP nominee only had time in his schedule to meet with one Palestinian leader and that Fayyad has an existing relationship with Romney. The Abbas camp did not offer an explanation for why no meeting was planned.
Romney’s relationship with the U.S.-educated Netanyahu dates back decades, when they briefly overlapped in the 1970s at Boston Consulting Group, and the two men share conservative outlooks. A Romney bankroller, Sheldon Adelson, is financing a free Israeli newspaper that reflects Netanyahu’s views.
Netanyahu has refused to endorse either presidential candidate, although his ties with Obama have been fraught.
Romney _ like most politicians who make the trek to Israel _ is likely to face questions such as whether he would endorse calls by some fellow Republicans to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his stance on Israeli calls for Washington to release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
Romney has consistently accused Obama of putting too much pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians and of being too weak on Iran. He says he wants to present a clearer military threat to the Islamic Republic, with a stronger naval presence in the Gulf. Tehran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons.
At a war veterans’ convention in Nevada this week, Romney accused Obama of being “fond of lecturing Israel’s leaders.”
Obama rejects the criticism and points to unprecedented security cooperation with the Jewish state.
Three years after he came into office with Israeli-Palestinian peace at the top of his foreign policy priorities, Obama recently acknowledged that his efforts there have failed. Peace talks have been deadlocked more than three years.
Obama, who tried to persuade the Arab world that he was an honest broker, lost the Palestinians’ trust by refusing to follow up tough talk with action when Israel defied his call to halt settlement construction on occupied land Palestinians seek for a future state.
The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has refused to resume negotiations without a settlement construction freeze and went ahead with a statehood campaign at the United Nations, over the president’s objections.
Palestinians fear Romney would be softer on Israel than Obama. Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi said that would doom any chance for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establishing a Palestinian state on lands Israel captured in the 1967 war.
Romney “will probably try to take it a notch higher,” she said, and if the U.S. refuses to put any pressure on Israel, “then there’s no chance for peace.”
Obama’s tense relations with Netanyahu have created the perception that U.S.-Israeli relations have deteriorated. During one of Netanyahu’s White House visits, Obama extended none of the trappings, like a joint news conference, usually accorded to an important ally.
Associated Press writer Kasie Hunt in London contributed to this report.