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Out Bibi-ing Bibi

Mitt Romney has out Bibi-ed Bibi.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is famous for saying that history is repeating itself. The way he tells it, we’re in the late 1930s, and today’s Nazis are the leaders of the Iranian regime, who threaten Israel’s future and perpetrate attacks like the recent one in Bulgaria through its proxies.

This morning, the Republican presidential candidate took Netanyahu’s penchant for linking history and present challenges, but outdid him by almost two millennia. Instead of being the Nazis who foreshadowed threats to Israel today, he managed to connect them to the events being mourned today, the Fast of Av, beginning with the destruction of the two ancient Jerusalem temples and the suffering that went along with it.

Planning Romney’s Israel trip for the Fast of Av was a gaffe by his campaign, but he was determined to turn it to his advantage, even going a little overboard and effusing that he was “honored” to be in Israel on the fast, as if it were a long-planned act of solidarity with Ancient Israel.

“I’m honored to be here on the day of Tisha B’Av, to recognize the solemnity of the day and also the suffering of the Jewish people over the centuries and the millennia, and come with recognition of the sacrifices of so many,” he told Netanyahu. “Unfortunately, the tragedies of wanton killing are not only things of the past, but have darkened our skies in even more recent times.”

From Netanyahu’s office it was straight to the residence of President Shimon Peres, where he focused on the Fast of Av again. He was again honored to be “here on this very special day,” and added: “This is a time of solemnity and remembrance of the many lives that have been lost through tragedy and terror over the millennia and I join with you and people in the nation on this very significant and consoling day.

After leaving his British hosts casting him as an arrogant foreigner, Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney arrived in Israel very much the diligent student.

British politicians and media were angered by his comment that “there are a few things that were disconcerting” about the country’s Olympic preparations, by his flouting of diplomatic protocol in revealing he received an intelligence briefing, and by appearing to forget Labor leader Ed Miliband’s name.

He touched down in Tel Aviv last night, and in meetings today has bent over backwards to show that he’s here to learn.

“We do have a friendship which spans the years, and at a critical time like this, I come to learn of your perspectives and your ideas with regards to the challenges faced in the region and challenges faced around the world,” he told Netanyahu.

Sitting next to Peres, after posing with him for photographs on a red carpet at the entrance to the presidential residence, Romney told him: “My hope today is to learn and to experience the feelings of your years of wisdom.”

In terms of the substance of the trip, the most important comment has come not from Romney but from one of his senior policy advisor Dan Senor. He told reporters that the West should do all it can to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons and “if Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability the governor would respect that decision.”

Netanyahu has not commented publicly on Senor’s remark, but did show appreciation for Romney’s general toughness on Iran. “I have to say that I heard some of your remarks a few days ago – you said that the greatest danger facing the world is of the Ayatollah regime possessing nuclear weapons capability,” he said. “Mitt, I couldn’t agree with you more, and I think it’s important to do everything in our power to prevent the Ayatollahs from possessing the capability.”

Netanyahu has known Romney for decades, as the two worked together at the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s, and he described the Presidential hopeful as “a personal friend.” But today has been marked by a strong effort on the part of all Israelis who met with Romney not to do anything that could be perceived as taking sides in the American presidential race. Even the body language between the two old friends, Netanyahu and Romney, was carefully metered — warm shoulder pats, but no hugs.

Romney made some efforts to show similar even-handedness towards different parties in Israel. He met with Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz who had a cautionary message regarding Iran, saying that “the time for military action against Iran has yet to arrive.” He has a meeting planned with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, leader of the centrist Independence party. But in what is being seen as a snub to the Israeli left he has cancelled a meeting with Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich.


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