Mitt's Pilgrimage

Can Romney swing American Jewish voters to the GOP ticket with his trip to Israel?

JERUSALEM – The U.S. presidential race might be deadlocked, but when Mitt Romney visits Israel on Sunday, July 29, the presumptive Republican nominee can reasonably expect the most heartfelt welcome he'll receive anywhere outside Utah.

Israeli enthusiasm for Romney is not necessarily the result of a carefully cultivated relationship -- as a former governor and business executive he had little time for foreign policy. Instead, affection for the candidate appears to be a clear case of ABO: Anyone But Obama.

The proof is in the polling. Thirty percent of Israelis surveyed think U.S.-Israel relations would improve under Romney, while a mere 8 percent said the same about a second Obama term. Among the 300,000 Americans living in Israel (half of whom are eligible to vote), support for Romney is twice as high as it is for Obama.

Romney's two-day visit -- during which he will also meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad -- is his fourth ever to Israel, and it's his first foreign trip since clinching the Republican nomination. The stop is aimed at two constituencies the candidate is desperate to woo: evangelicals -- reliably Republican but leery of his Mormonism -- and Jewish Americans, heavily concentrated in swing states like Ohio and Florida and vexed, his campaign believes, by Obama's policies toward the Jewish state.

"A lot of our members moved here as registered Democrats," says Kory Bardash, co-chair of Republicans Abroad Israel, a partisan advocacy group that claims to mobilize upwards of 4,000 volunteers during election season. "A lot of people are now saying, 'I've never voted Republican, but there's no way I'm voting Obama.' That includes many who voted for him in '08."

There are now "tens of thousands" of Republican voters in Israel, according to Bardash, but the real purpose of Romney's trip is to signal his commitment to Israel to voters back home -- a cause that is aided by Obama's apparent inability to connect with Israelis. 

The problem doesn't seem to be that Israelis see Obama as openly hostile -- polls show them evenly split over whether he is "friendly" to their country. Instead, many think the president just doesn't "get" Israel and lacks the empathy of George W. Bush or even his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton.   

"President Obama never acquired the connection with the Israeli public that President Clinton had," says Dore Gold, the American-born president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Obama just hasn't managed to have the same 'click' with the man on the street."

"Many American Jews are very liberal and don't count Israel as one of the top issues in their life," says Bardash, a New Jersey native who moved to Jerusalem 16 years ago. "But among those who define themselves as pro-Israel and for whom Israel is important, we believe Obama has lost a lot of support."

Six in 10 Jewish Americans still say they support the president, roughly the same proportion that supported him a month before the 2008 election, in which Obama ultimately hauled in 75 percent of the Jewish vote. Still, Republican Jewish groups boast that Romney's 29 percent approval among American Jews is the highest for a Republican candidate in a quarter-century.

And while a solid majority of American Jews continue to vote Democratic, the Israeli left is a shadow of its old self -- discredited by the failed peace process led by slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the bloodshed of the last decade's Second Intifada. The left's remaining holdouts (represented by just one-sixth of parliament) still generally back Obama, but there is a broad consensus in today's Israeli center that sees the U.S. president's first term as a forgettable chain of slips, snubs, and rookie mistakes.

Obama won few plaudits, even among veteran peace processors in Washington and Jerusalem, for his early insistence that Israel freeze all building in West Bank settlements. (American peace negotiator Aaron David Miller included the initiative in his "Dumb Idea Hall of Fame.") Obama's detractors argue the move emboldened Palestinians to forgo talks with Israel and unilaterally declare statehood at the United Nations. (The administration insists its threat to use its Security Council veto underscored its commitment to the peace process.)

Yet Netanyahu's government has rarely been an easy partner. In 2010, the Israeli Interior Ministry embarrassed the White House by approving new housing units in East Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden. The Obama administration was equally chagrined when, a year later, the Israeli premier treated the president to an impromptu history lesson in front of reporters in the Oval Office.

Still, critics accuse Obama of creating "daylight" between Washington and Jerusalem in a misguided bid to improve America's image in the Muslim world. Bardash of Republicans Abroad says that the president was clinging to the mistaken view that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root cause of most of the Middle East's ills. "The Arab Spring has demonstrated that's not the case," he says. "These countries have all kinds of internal problems that have nothing to do with Israel."

Indeed, just 18 percent of Israelis polled approve of Obama's handling of the Arab revolts, and even pundits on the center-left have found his Middle East policy perplexing. The president abstained from "meddling" in Iran's 2009 Green Revolution, but called for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a three-decade ally of the United States and Israel, to resign within days of protests erupting in Tahrir Square. When an uprising broke out in Syria -- a staunch ally of Iran and the launching pad for 90 percent of foreign fighters who attacked U.S. troops in Iraq from 2003 to 2008 -- Obama waited five months before appealing to President Bashar al-Assad to resign. Democrats maintain that each case was unique and that Obama was trying to position himself ahead of events; Republicans charge the president with watching history unfold rather than employing American clout to shape it.

Obama's Iran policy has also distanced him from many Israelis. Netanyahu has pushed the White House to more seriously consider military action should diplomacy over Tehran's nuclear program fail, but Obama has remained steadfastly cautious in his rhetoric. That's not to say the two governments haven't worked together: The United States and Israel are believed to have created the Stuxnet worm discovered at Iran's Natanz enrichment facility in 2010, and that same year the White House pushed through a comprehensive fourth round of U.N. sanctions to complement the three passed under Bush. Nonetheless, roughly half of Israelis surveyed view Obama's position on Iran's nuclear drive as too soft.

Smelling blood, Romney has come out blasting, promising the credible military threat he claims Obama has failed to create: "Only if Iran understands that the United States is utterly determined when we say that their nuclear-weapons program is unacceptable is there a possibility that they will give up their nuclear aspirations peacefully," the candidate states on his website.

Broader Israeli security concerns have proved to be another stumbling block for Obama. Last week, after a terrorist attack in Bulgaria left five Israeli vacationers dead, U.S. officials privately fingered Iran and Hezbollah but declined to implicate them publicly, telling the New York Times the attack was likely a "tit-for-tat" response for Israel's alleged assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Pro-Israel pundits blasted the statement -- which seemed to equate civilian holidaymakers, one of them a pregnant woman, with scientists suspected of developing an illicit weapons program -- as another instance of the administration giving the Iranians a free pass.

Moreover, Obama's popularity is hardly helped by his notoriously frosty relationship with Netanyahu. Whereas the president's interactions with Bibi have always seemed strained, Romney enjoys an amicable three-decade relationship with the prime minister dating back to their early careers at Boston Consulting Group. "We can almost speak in shorthand," Romney has said of the Israeli leader. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney sought Netanyahu's advice on limiting the size of government. And when Netanyahu wanted to help U.S. firms divest from Iran, Romney offered tips of his own.

Asked in the Dec. 10 Republican debate whether he agreed with then-contender Newt Gingrich's assessment that the Palestinians are an "invented" people, Romney spun the question to highlight his friendship with Netanyahu and, implicitly, Obama's lack thereof: "Before I made a statement of that nature, I'd get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say, 'Would it help if I said this? What would you like me to do?'" As Netanyahu remains broadly popular in Israel, the Republican candidate has been able to bask in his reflected glow.

The administration has insisted it has been a stalwart friend of Israel, denouncing Republican criticism as made up of so many groundless "myths." When Romney told evangelicals in June that he would do the "opposite" of the president on all things Israel, Obama's campaign promptly shot back: "[D]oes that mean he would reverse President Obama's policies of sending Israel the largest security assistance packages in history? Does it mean he would let Israel stand alone at the United Nations, or that he would stop funding the Iron Dome [rocket interception] system? Does it mean he would abandon the coalition working together to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions?"

Still, Team Romney appears convinced that along with the economy, Israel is Obama's Achilles heel -- and is gleefully preparing its poisoned darts.

Romney has accused Obama of "[throwing] Israel under the bus" and has vowed a different approach. "The best way to have peace in the Middle East is not for us to vacillate and to appease, but is to say, 'We stand with our friend Israel. We are committed to a Jewish state in Israel. We will not have an inch of difference between ourselves and our ally, Israel.'"

Dan Senor, a Romney foreign-policy advisor who co-authored a bestselling book on Israel's economic success, said his candidate believes "threats to Israel are threats to America; challenges to Israel are challenges to America.… We believe Americans of all stripes, from across the country, identify with Israel. Governor Romney believes support for Israel is an American value."

Gold, Netanyahu's former advisor, says Israel hopes to maintain constructive relations with both U.S. parties, but it's an ill-kept secret in Jerusalem that Bibi and his government would raise a Shabbat toast should America choose to vote in its first Mormon executive.

As the election looms, Israelis appear ripe for the Republicans' picking: Just 38 percent have a positive view of Obama, compared to 60 percent in 2009. Most can't vote in America, but Mitt Romney is hoping their affection helps win him just a little more love from those who can.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


The Ghost of Abu Yahya

The memory of the al Qaeda commander known as "the next Osama" lives on in a remote Libyan village.

For more photos of the isolated Libyan village that reared Aby Yahu al-Libi, click here. 

TESAWA, Libya – The stretch of Libyan desert finally comes to an end, as palm trees and herds of goats announce life in an oasis town. Mustafa, the nephew of al Qaeda's former second in command, sits in the passenger seat of a white four by four. "Welcome," he says, sipping from a bottle of water, "This is Tesawa."

Tesawa lies roughly 500 miles south of Libya's capital Tripoli -- far removed from the convulsions that have seized the country since Muammar al-Qaddafi's fall. With Niger and Algeria less than 200 miles away, this is the heart of the Sahara. It is a region inhabited primarily by Arab tribes and an ethnic Tuareg minority that doesn't lack for three things: sand, traditions, and hospitality. It is also the hometown of Abu Yahya al-Libi, the former al Qaeda commander whose star in the organization rose quickly due to his talent for both oratory and jihad.

Abu Yahya -- whose real name, his family says, is Al Hussain Muhammad Qayed -- spent the first 21 years of his life here. He then spent his last two decades abroad, first traveling to Mauritania and Sudan before eventually arriving in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he joined the ranks of al Qaeda. He was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but escaped from Bagram Air Base in 2005. He rocketed to fame following his jailbreak, achieving such prominence that some Western counterterrorism analysts even dubbed him "the next Osama."

In the back of the car lies a Kalashnikov -- "you never know here in the desert," our young, bearded driver provided by Abu Yahya's family explains. Another weapon is lodged between the driver seat and the gearbox, next to a chicken sandwich. Mustafa, 30, connects his cell phone via Bluetooth to the car stereo and plays one of Abu Yahya's speeches. "Look," he says after the clip ends, holding up his arm. "His words always give me goose bumps."

Mustafa -- who remembers his uncle as a soccer-loving youngster rooting for Brazil in the World Cup -- will never hear the real voice of Abu Yahya again. On June 5, the White House announced that Abu Yahya was killed in a drone strike a day earlier in Mir Ali, a town in Pakistan's tribal area. Comments from al Qaeda leaders themselves would soon confirm the news. But Abu Yahya's memory lives on in this town, which views its most famous son with admiration -- even as residents make clear that they have no intention of following his violent path.

Like al Qaeda's version of Elvis, many seem unable to shake the belief that Abu Yahya is still alive and well. Rumors that he escaped the drone strike have taken on a life of their own in the past month. Various al Qaeda affiliated websites have claimed that Abu Yahya escaped -- promising to air videos, which never emerged, showing that the organization's second-in-command lives on.

Abu Yahya's family, however, knows better. The 55-year old Abu Bakr Qayed, his eldest brother, sits under a tree at the family farm. "Yes, my brother Abu Yahya al-Libi was martyred in Pakistan," he says, confirming Abu Yahya's death for the first time to a journalist. He attributes the news to "a reliable source" in Pakistan.

Abu Yahya's death did not come as a surprise to his family. "The moment Osama Bin Laden was killed, I cried for my brother," Abu Bakr explains. "Because if they can get the leader they for sure can get all the others."

Family members said their goodbyes to Abu Yahya in a ceremony at their small compound last month, Abu Bakr says. Male villagers visited to pay their respects to Abu Yahya's male relatives, and verses from the Quran were read out. There was no body -- Abu Bakr assumes his brother is buried "somewhere in Pakistan."

While the men of the family gathered for the mourning ceremony, Abu Yahya's Mauritanian wife, Tutu Bent Abdul Rahman -- who other family members refer as Umm Yahya, or "mother of Yahya" - was secluded in one of the family's houses. She will remain there for a period of four months and 10 days, in accordance with a strict interpretation of Islamic law. During this period she is not allowed to meet any man, including male family members of her husband.

Abu Yahya's death marks the latest tribulation of what has been a difficult life for Umm Yahya. She and her two sons and daughter -- 18-year old Yahya, 15-year old Karima, and 12-year old Osama -- waited 11 years in Mauritania for the return of Abu Yahya, whose journeys to Pakistan and Afghanistan drew unwanted government attention. "I was often checked by Mauritanian intelligence," she claims, "It was a very hard time."

Under Qaddafi's reign, Abu Yahya's wife and children were unable to join his family here in Tesawa -- the Libyan despot harbored an abiding hostility to Islamists after fundamentalist groups threatened his rule during the 1990s. But with Libya in chaos after Qaddafi's fall, the coast was clear, and so the widow and her three children moved to the Tesawa compound during the summer of 2011.

According to Umm Yahya, she had sparing contact with her husband during his years abroad.

"While waiting 11 years for my husband he contacted me once every year or two years by phone or by SMS," she confesses. "He would tell me to be brave and to wait and to have faith in jihad. This was not easy, of course."

But while Umm Yahya was waiting for Abu Yahya, the al Qaeda commander wasn't necessarily waiting for her. "We have found out that Abu Yahya also got married in Pakistan," Abu Bakr, the eldest brother, whispers later. "He has a wife there and a daughter named Asmaa. The wife is pregnant. We are trying to move her to Tesawa because we are her family now."

Abu Bakr now suggests a little drive through the village to see the landmarks of Abu Yahya's life. First stop: A ruin made of stones and mud, destroyed by time and harsh weather. "This is where Abu Yahya was born," he says, pointing to a destroyed room in what was once a house.

Abu Bakr continues on foot, passing some of his goats, sheep, and many palm trees. He stayed in Tesawa, he says, because "I had to take care of my parents." He says he wishes his brother never left the town: "I would be happy if he would have stayed. Marry, start a family, work the fields, behave like the others."

Nevertheless, he understands why Abu Yahya chose a different path.

"[In Qaddafi's Libya], if you kept a beard you were labeled an extremist and could be arrested," he explains. "Many people were prosecuted by these secular regimes in the Middle East. There was no space to breath inside Libya and the Arab world. So [Abu Yahya and people like him] left abroad and vowed to bring down those regimes. There is a saying in Arabic: Suppression creates explosion."

"But let us not forget," says Abu Bakr, now with fire in his voice. "That we -- his family -- cannot be frowned upon because of the actions of our brother, our husband, or our father. Abu Yahya was responsible for his own actions, just like we are responsible for ours."

With that, Abu Bakr starts his car and we drive through town to a yellow concrete building that served as Abu Yahya's elementary school. Inside, its walls are lined with various religious texts -- as well as a drawing of Sponge Bob and Tom & Jerry figures made of cardboard.

Al Mahdi Abu Bakr, who now works as a teacher here, remembers Abu Yahya from their days as classmates at the school. "He was a very smart guy," he says. "He advised us on religious issues related to prayers and fasting."

On a table in the hall lays a large book containing a long list of names -- a record of everyone who went to school here. Abu Bakr locates his brother's name and proudly points at the comment written next to it. "Excellent student," it says.

When Abu Bakr drives back to the house, it is too late to leave Tesawa. Crossing the desert by night would be dangerous. Without any hesitation, the family offers a place to sleep. They also share their dinner with us: A large bowl of beans with camel intestines and sides of chicken, bread, and grapes.

Yahya, the eldest son of the slain al Qaeda commander, serves dinner. He has a friendly face, but appears timid -- he doesn't speak much, turning instead to the TV, where he watches a repeat of soccer matches from the 2012 Euro Cup.

His younger brother Osama is livelier, but seems torn between conflicting emotions. He laughs upon being handed a camera -- snapping pictures and claiming he wants to be a journalist. But during gloomier moments, he stands up and delivers speeches the way his father once did. Lifting one finger into the air, the 12-year-old speaks with a heavy voice about Islam, the Muslim ummah ("community"), and the battle against the unbelievers. Osama says he wants to become a fighter, a mujahid just like his father. But when asked about his father, his emotions swing again. He starts crying, and mumbles a question: "Father, why did you leave us, why did you go away?"

Harald Doornbos