JERUSALEM—Mitt Romney arrived in Israel Saturday looking to reset an overseas trip that was aimed at proving him to be a capable leader on the world stage. But his overseas debut was undermined almost from the very moment he arrived in London, the first stop of his seven-day tour, when he admitted he found the city's Olympic preparations "disconcerting."
While Romney later dialed back the assessment, his comments set off a firestorm within the British media--which labeled him "Mitt the Twit"--and prompted rebukes from key officials, including Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson.
But Romney's rough few days in London could be nothing compared to the task ahead in Israel. While the presumptive Republican nominee will be on somewhat friendlier territory—he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been friends since they worked together at the Boston Consulting Group in 1976—Romney will be navigating far trickier diplomatic territory in what is considered one of the most sensitive foreign-policy regions in the world.
His every word and action will face even greater scrutiny than in Great Britain, as Romney faces intense pressure to explain how he would handle the Middle East differently than Obama.
Back home, Romney has repeatedly cast himself as someone who would be a far friendlier ally to Israel. The GOP candidate has repeatedly said he would "do the opposite" of President Barack Obama when it comes to the Middle East—though he hasn't specified exactly what that means in terms of policy.
Speaking before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nev., last Tuesday, Romney issued a blistering critique of Obama's handling of Israel, trashing him for his "shabby treatment" of leaders in the region. In one of his harshest slaps to Obama's foreign-policy agenda yet, Romney trashed the president for "lecturing Israel's leaders." Israel, Romney said, deserves "better than what they have received from the leader of the free world."
It was a red-meat speech to Republicans and supporters of Israel—and no doubt was timed to stir up support for Romney ahead of his visit here. But Romney won't be able to repeat that rhetoric during his two-day visit here. He faces pressure to explain his Middle East policy while at the same time abiding by his rule of not criticizing the president while overseas—a dilemma that could be tricky for the GOP candidate as he seeks to distinguish himself against Obama here.
But Dan Senor, a top foreign-policy adviser to Romney, insisted the GOP candidate is coming to Israel to "learn" rather than "contrast" his policies with Obama's. He cited the Romney campaign's cooperation with Daniel Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel who was appointed by Obama, as a sign that the former Massachusetts governor wasn't seeking to undermine the president while abroad.
"Our approach is no surprises on either side," Senor said, adding that Romney wasn't unveiling new policy in the region because it could be interpreted as "inherent critique" of the current administration.
"We are working very hard to make sure we don't do that," Senor insisted. "We don't want to criticize the president on foreign soil."
On Sunday, Romney has a full slate of meetings with top officials in the region, including Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He will also meet with key members of Israel's security cabinet, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Romney wraps up the day with what aides have described as a major speech against the backdrop of Old Jerusalem. Senor told reporters Romney would show his support for Israel "in a very public way" by focusing on the "common" values and "shared" agenda between the two nations—especially on security issues.
"The challenges and the threats to Israel are the challenges and threats to America, and the opportunities awaiting Israel are the opportunities awaiting America," Senor said.
But Romney's trip is not just aimed at casting him as a statesman in a troubled region. His journey is also aimed at making inroads with Jewish voters who have been unhappy with Obama's handling of the Middle East. He's also looking to boost his campaign's bank account.
On Monday morning, Romney is set to headline a major fundraiser at King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where the price of admission is upward of $50,000 per person. (The campaign is raising cash from American citizens only, since contributions from foreign donors is against campaign finance law.) The proceeds go to the Romney Victory Fund—a joint fundraising committee set up between the Romney campaign, the Republican National Committee, and several state Republican parties.
Many of Romney's prominent Jewish supporters have been invited to fly in from the U.S. for the event, and the guest list includes Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnet who has contributed more than $20 million so far in this election cycle to Republican candidates and conservative groups.
Under long-standing rules between the campaign and its traveling press corps, Romney's comments at the Monday fundraiser would normally be open to a small pool of reporters. But on Saturday, as Romney flew from London to Tel Aviv, a campaign spokesman abruptly announced the fundraiser would be closed to the press.
Asked why the fundraiser was now closed to the media,Romney's traveling press secretary Rick Gorka replied, "No comment."