A recent Mitt Romney campaign commercial takes U.S. President Barack Obama to task for not visiting Israel during the first three-and-a-half years of his presidency. The television ad, complete with footage of the former Massachusetts governor thoughtfully contemplating the Western Wall in Jerusalem, declares that Romney "will be a different kind of president -- a strong leader who stands by our allies." A similar spot by the Emergency Committee for Israel, an advocacy group that backs Romney, charges that Obama has "traveled all over the Middle East. But he hasn't found time to visit our ally and friend, Israel.… As the dangers to Israel mount, where's Obama?"
This line of attack represents a kind of election-year Jedi mind trick -- an attempt to use the power of suggestion to create the illusion that Obama does not support Israel. But, as a recent Washington Post analysis shows, the stamps in a presidential passport are an extraordinarily poor yardstick for measuring policy.
For more than six decades, the Jewish state has enjoyed wide bipartisan backing in the United States. Yet seven of the last 11 presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman (who famously recognized Israel's independence minutes after it was declared), never made the trip. Of the four who did visit Israel, two (Richard Nixon and George W. Bush) did so only in their last year in office. What's more, as the Post's review of State Department records shows, every president who visited Israel did so only after first visiting Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
So if trekking to Tel Aviv is the exception rather than the rule, why would Romney and his allies resort to such a substance-free metric to criticize Obama's Israel policy? Because, it's all they have. As the Defense Department official with primary responsibility for enhancing Israel's defense capabilities and deepening joint military cooperation with the United States from 2009 to 2011, I can attest to a different reality: No president in history has done more for Israel's security than Obama.
The case for Obama's Israel policy begins with record-high levels of Foreign Military Financing (FMF). The Obama administration has increased security assistance to Israel every single year since the president took office, providing nearly $10 billion in aid -- covering roughly a fifth of Israel's defense budget -- over the past three years. To put this in perspective, this is about 20 percent higher than the remaining six dozen recipients of U.S. FMF combined. Historic aid levels have been complemented by other steps to ensure Israel's unrivaled military advantage in the region, including high-level consultation with Israeli officials on U.S. arms sales to the region, operational cooperation to improve Israel's conventional military and counterterrorism capabilities, and providing Israel with advanced technology, such as the fifth-generation stealth Joint Strike Fighter, to which no other state in the Middle East has access.
Under Obama's direction, the United States has also deepened defense cooperation aimed at helping Israel address its most pressing security concerns, including rocket and missile threats emanating from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. When then-Senator Obama traveled to Israel in 2008, it wasn't for a political fundraiser. Instead, he visited Israeli victims of Palestinian rocket fire in the southern town of Sderot, declaring "I came to Sderot with a commitment to Israel's security." These were not just words. As president, Obama has championed efforts to provide Israel with $275 million over and above its annual FMF to help finance Iron Dome, an anti-rocket system that has already saved Israeli lives by intercepting approximately 90 percent of projectiles launched against protected areas in the country's south in the past year.
This assistance is part of a comprehensive package that underwrites Israel's multitiered rocket and missile defense. The package includes U.S. aid for the development of the David's Sling long-range rocket defense system and the Arrow ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems. It also involves maintaining an advanced U.S. X-band long-range radar system in Israel's Negev desert, positioning U.S. Aegis BMD ships in the eastern Mediterranean, and conducting the largest joint military exercises in history to improve U.S.-Israel missile defense cooperation.
During my nearly three years at the Pentagon, I traveled to Israel 13 times and participated in more than 100 meetings with senior Israeli civilian and military officials. Although Israel was only one of 14 countries in my portfolio, no other country received that level of attention. My experience represented a small fraction of the high-level interactions between our respective defense and national security establishments. This sustained pattern of security cooperation -- which Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has described as "wide, all-encompassing, and unprecedented" -- was not simply an example of bureaucratic inertia. On the contrary, it was the result of a clear directive from the president to strengthen defense ties and ensure Israel's security in a dangerous world. That is likely why Barak, when asked at a recent forum whether Obama is a friend to Israel, responded: "Yes, clearly so."