Yes, a week is a long time in politics

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Citizens of the United States of America go to the polls on Tuesday, 6 November 2012. For those of us who live in the real world, it's not necessarily obvious how that simple fact can impact on events in far-flung corners of the globe.

Case in point, you might not have heard about the Iron Dome. This is a mobile all-weather air defence system designed to intercept and destroy short-range rockets and artillery shells fired from distances of 4 to 70 km away.

It has proven to be highly effective since being deployed some 15 months ago.

Last Friday, US President Barack Obama signed into a law a congressional bill granting Israel $70 million in US aid to develop new Iron Dome batteries.

“By signing this bill, everyone will understand that the US is committed to Israel’s safety,” Obama said during the White House signing ceremony.

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In response, Israeli defence chief and deputy prime minister Ehud Barak said the Obama White House has been the most supportive administration throughout the two countries' diplomatic relations on matters of Israeli security.

Now to understand why the timing of this is significant, Obama's opponent in the presidential race, Mitt Romney, is touring the world. It's expected of presidential candidates to do this to show that they can negotiate the treacherous currents and jagged rocks of foreign policy.

Romney's trip started in the United Kingdom where he proceeded to upset the US's closest ally by questioning whether London was ready to host the 2012 Olympics.

The fallout in the UK media has left no doubt as to the contempt with which the British public currently regard Romney.

Romney was scheduled to arrive Sunday in Israel. He has a cozy relationship with Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu – the two worked at Boston Consulting decades ago before their respective political careers.

And Romney has made it a centrepiece of his campaign against Obama that the US president is soft on Israel's security.

(Yes, the man who gave the order to violate the territorial integrity of Pakistan and assassinate Osama bin Laden stands accused of being soft on Israel's security.)

It is an argument that has played in Romney's favour during the early part of the presidential campaign. It has also allowed Netanyahu to be even more belligerent than usual around allegations of Iran's potential development of nuclear weapons.

Think about it. If Netanyahu threatens to bomb Iran and Obama says "Don't do that," Obama plays into Romney's hands as being soft on Israel.

Had Romney's visit taken place earlier in the month, he would no doubt have been greeted with tremendous fanfare and would in all likelihood have given voice to the policy position previously expressed by his team that he would support an Israeli decision to preemptively strike Iran.

But Harold Wilson's words – "A week is a long time in politics" – have been proved true yet again. The largest party in Netanyahu's ruling coalition, Kadima, pulled out of government on 18 July. Although the departure of Kadima still leaves Netanyahu as prime minister, his position is now extremely shaky.

Romney had planned a $50 000 a plate fundraising lunch in Jerusalem. His timing was awful. Firstly the Arab part of Jerusalem is observing the month-long fast of Ramadan. Secondly, the Jewish side was observing Tisha B’av, the annual day of mourning for the destruction of the first two Temples of Jerusalem and is also a day when orthodox Jews fast.

Romney's team had to move the Sunday lunch to breakfast on Monday morning.

So what's likely to happen before the end of the year?

Well, an unstable Israel ahead of an election is the last thing that Obama needs. Expect to hear a lot more from the US president ostensibly in support of the Netanyahu government between now and then – including the largest ever US-Israel joint military operation scheduled for October. Expect a lot more posturing on Iran from all parties.

But the real threat of a fresh conflict in the Middle-East has been measurably reduced for now.

If it holds long enough for Obama to be re-elected, expect him to focus on the promises of his landmark speech in Cairo of 4 June 2009 – promises I believe he will keep.

Just remember that that "if"depends on the many weeks that lie ahead of us before 6 November 2012.