ASHKELON, Israel — It was a public display of affection even a hard-liner could love.
Standing in front of a rocket-busting Iron Dome battery paid for by American tax dollars, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak posed side-by-side for cameras in the middle of a hot and dusty farmer's field just five miles from the Gaza border. Then they gushed.
The "special relationship" Israel has with the U.S. military is stronger than it's ever been, Barak claimed. "This is the strongest alliance that we have," Panetta added, flirting with a Mitt Romney-esque gaffe that may reverberate in Great Britain.
Barak called him "my friend." Panetta called him "Ehud."
It was a starkly contrasting image from Romney's rabbi-walk to the Western Wall this weekend. Romney, in Jerusalem speeches, overtly and implicitly claimed President Obama has not done enough for Israel's defense and not used the military enough to pressure Iran. The White House, he claimed, had created "diplomatic distance" here, and he called for "further action" against Iran in Israel's defense.
In reality, it is hard to imagine what else the United States could do to back Israel more strongly than it already has. Instead of specifics, Romney's attacks were directed at the White House, ignoring the tight relationships between U.S. and Israeli senior military officers, and keeping his rhetoric at the 10,000 foot-level. At that level, though, Panetta and Barak are right about the candidate's close ties.
Asked for his view on Romney's characterizations, Barak invoked the old rule of not commenting on American candidate positions, but made his position clear. U.S. and Israeli militaries have grown stronger and closer over decades, no matter what the party colors of the U.S. president.
"We have a long tradition of friendship with America," he said. "I have been exposed to it personally and I have seen it going deeper and deeper along the years" no matter which party ran the White House. "Of course, we expect it to be continued by the next administration," he said, no matter who wins in November.
Panetta, for his part, said the proof is "backed not only by our words but by our deeds." Iron Dome, he said, is but one example and "a game changer" for Israeli security because of its 80 percent success rate. Last month there were 12 rocket attacks in the area and the battery behind them knocked them all down, including five Grad rockets launched simultaneously from Gaza, according to Israeli Col. Zvika Haimovich, commander of all of Israel's "active-defense" units like Iron Dome. Since last year, the systems have hit more than 100 rockets from the Gaza Strip.
Already, the United States allocated more than $200 million for the system in 2010, and the House-passed authorization bill includes $680 million for 2013. President Obama released an additional $70 million, which came from last month's reprogrammed 2012 funds. It all comes on top of more than $3 billion in aid to Israel expected this year.