Forward Thinking

Small Talk and Big Hopes for Romney

By Nathan Jeffay

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Mitt Romney

The gatekeeper hands a man two name badges, explaining that staff were unsure how he likes his name spelled so they made both. “Can I sell you one back for $50,000?” he asks with a smile, a reference to the price per couple at this exclusive fundraising breakfast with Mitt Romney.

At that moment the gatekeeper becomes flustered — a photographer behind her is snapping at the name badges, which reveal who the donors are attending this 50 grand-a-couple Romney fundraiser. In a frenzy she takes her papers, upturns them, and makes an improvised secrecy cover.

Lisa Spies, director of both Jewish Outreach for Romney Victory and Women for Romney Victory, welcomes everyone individually with an excited cry and some donor-specific small talk. “I feel like everyone in Israel knows each other,” she tells a small huddle of people chatting. Well, the circle of Republican Americans who can afford this kind of price for breakfast is pretty small.

Robert “Woody” Johnson, owner of the New York Jets, chats to a Hasidic businessman with long side curls, dressed in a long black coat. “We read ‘Start Up Nation’ about you guys,” Johnson says with admiration.

Suddenly everyone turns their head. The billlionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, key funder of the Romney campaign, has walked in to the hotel lobby, leaning on his wife Miriam for support. He was kept waiting, leaning on the back of a settee for several minutes — not out of disrespect but so that he could make an entrance as the unofficial guest of honor.

Among the other guests there were many yarmulkes, and a significant contingent of people who live in settlements or have connections to settler causes, including Shmuel Wasserman, a U.S.-born venture capital banker who now lives in the settlement of Efrat, and Bobby Rechnitz, a Los Angeles businessman who in the past helped to organize the Jerusalem Conference, an annual event for the Israeli nationalist camp.

The 40 guests were seated around a U-shaped table in a smart private room at the King David, Jerusalem’s poshest hotel and Romney’s headquarters during his 36-hour Israel visit, which ended this morning. Romney sat next to Adelson, and gave a message with a slightly different focus to yesterday’s, when he concentrated on Israeli concerns, taking a hawkish line on Iran, affirming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and speaking of Jewish history.

Today, his audience was wealthy American-Israelis, many of whom live here but have business interests in the States, and he gave much more attention to domestic American matters. There were long discussions of his well-known position on the importance of entrepreneurship and free trade, on the U.S. economy, on and his desire to improve education. In his view “news that our economy grew at 1.5 percent last quarter was really quite troubling.”

Romney “was very much to the point,” Wasserman, told the Forward, adding that the breakfast talk voiced his own long-held belief that “America needs businesspeople as part of the backbone” running the country. Michael Freund, who works in the nonprofit sector, said that he “felt inspired” by the address.

While Romney spoke about domestic issues, it was no general policy discussion. Both the candidate and his wife spoke of their spiritual experience of visiting Israel, and he used Israel as a kind of paradigm for the values he is promoting. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things,” he said, referring to innovation in business, the ability to thrive in difficult circumstances, and the “hand of providence.”

He also suggested that Jewish culture has led to Israel faring better economically than the Palestinians. “As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” he said. World Bank figures suggest that he actually low-balled on the disparity, which was $31,000 compared to $1,500.

But there was no danger that he would alienate Palestinians with his comments — he already did that yesterday, pointedly referring on at least two occasions to Jerusalem as the “capital of Israel,” a title that Palestinians and the international community rejects due to the occupied status of East Jerusalem. He then went further in an interview with CNN, saying that America should move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “A nation has the capacity to choose its own capital city, and Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” Romney said. “I think it’s long been the policy to ultimately have our embassy in the nation’s capital of Jerusalem.”

Ashraf Khatib, spokesman for the Negotiations Affairs Department of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is responsible for talks with Israel, condemned the comments, saying in an interview with the Forward: “He’s just using this sensitive matter to attract the Jewish vote.”

At the breakfast, there was a strict policy of only admitting American citizens to due to election rules prohibiting non-citizens from contributing to campaigns. But this didn’t stop the odd non-American hanging around in the lobby as it went on. Religious-Zionist politician Effi Eitam, a former Israeli minister who walked out of the government in 2004 to protest the Gaza disengagement, told the Forward that he was “quite satisfied” by what he heard from Romney during his visit, and voiced criticism for Obama. Still, he insisted: “We’re not getting involved in any political matters in America.”

This subject of Israel retaining a bi-partisan relationship with American politicians was a sensitive one during the trip, and the Israeli politicians he met with were careful not to say anything that could be construed as endorsement. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon even spoke to Israel Radio this morning on this subject, saying there was nothing untoward about the red carpet welcome. He also told the New York Times: “For us it shouldn’t and it does not matter at all who will be the next president. We should not get involved, and I am happy to see that we are not involved, even though there are those who are trying to look microscopically to see if there is any favoritism. It is folklore more than anything else.”

Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid suspected that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed Romney an unusual degree of warmth — but because of scheduling, not because of any comments. He wrote: “In general, Netanyahu embraced Romney as no Israeli prime minister has ever before embraced a candidate running against an incumbent US president: Aside from their working meeting in the morning, Netanyahu also hosted Romney and his wife and sons for dinner at his official residence.”

Of course, beyond analyzing schedules, it’s evident that there is something unusual about Netanyahu and Romney’s relationship, and that is due to their mutual patron, Sheldon Adelson. This man, who is bankrolling a large part of Romney’s campaign, is also a strong supporter of Netanyahu, and many have speculated that he established his Israeli free sheet to sway public opinion towards Netanyahu and get him elected. But observers were left only to speculate on the impact that their common closeness to Adelson had on their relations with each other — the subject that none of the players on the trip wanted to discuss.

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