JERUSALEM — Mitt Romney arrives here Saturday, embarking on the meatiest portion of his foreign trip in a far different position than President Obama did four years ago: as a relative unknown.
The presumptive Republican nominee, trying to peel away Jewish support for Obama, is eager to cast himself as a better friend of Israel than the current administration. Recent polling and interviews illustrate some dissatisfaction with Obama — the result of perceived snubs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calls for freezing of settlements in the Palestinian territories, and an unwillingness so far to visit the country as president.
But to the extent that Romney’s foreign trip is a first date on the international stage, Israelis will be going in blind. In more than a dozen interviews, from the offices of the Israeli Parliament to the streets and cafes here, Israelis have little, if any, familiarity with Romney.
“Who is Romney?” asked a young Orthodox Jew.
“I don’t know who is him,” said Abraham Marzouk, a 56-year-old high school teacher from a small town in central Israel.
“Intelligent people in this building know nothing about him,” Herb Keinon, a diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, said in an interview at Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset. “He’s really a tabula rasa.”
Even while Romney seeks to use Israel as an opportunity to showcase major distinctions between himself and Obama, the reaction so far from Israelis seems to be a shrug of the shoulders.
Romney’s foreign trip diverts him from the core theme of his campaign — the domestic economy — as he attempts to put on a statesman’s hat and demonstrate to voters that he is adept at foreign policy. But after an unsteady start in London, where a disparaging comment he made about the city’s Olympic Games brought rebukes from British newspapers and politicians, Romney is coming to one of the world’s most volatile areas of conflict.
He arrives for a 36-hour visit with headlines dominated by questions about chemical weapons in Syria, apprehension about Iran developing a nuclear weapon, and a persistent question of whether Israelis and Palestinians will ever find peace. The Obama administration picked Friday to unveil $70 million in military assistance for Israel.
On Sunday, Romney will meet with officials including Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres, several Israeli opposition leaders, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. Romney is planning on delivering a speech with the Old City of Jerusalem in the background.
Before departing for Poland on Monday, Romney is holding a fund-raiser that is expected to be attended by Sheldon Adelson, who has emerged as the top Republican donor of the presidential cycle. The Dorchester-born casino magnate has been active in Israeli politics — he owns a newspaper here and is an ally of Netanyahu’s — and is spearheading an effort to persuade American Jews, who traditionally support Democrats overwhelmingly, to vote against Obama.
Romney’s advisers have emphasized that his trip — his fourth to Israel — is not designed for foreign policy pronouncements. While traveling abroad, they say, he won’t explicitly highlight disagreements with the administration.
But before he left for foreign shores he was sharply critical of Obama. In an address in Reno on Monday, Romney criticized what he called “this administration’s shabby treatment of one of our fondest friends.”
Romney earlier bluntly said that Obama “threw Israel under the bus.” The comments stung among Obama supporters, and some in Israel.
“This claim that Obama is throwing Israel under the bus is nasty,” said Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister in the left-leaning Labor Party. “It is not true.”
Sneh, a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces, now heads the small Yisrael Hazaka party, whose name means Strong Israel. He said he worried that US electoral politics were increasingly turning Israel into a political football, in a departure from the past, when the longtime alliance was mostly insulated from partisan squabbling in Washington.
“They are trying to make it a partisan issue,” he said of American Jews. “It is a mistake.”
In a recent poll among Israelis, 30 percent said they thought US-Israel relations would improve during a Romney presidency, while 26 percent said they would stay the same; 38 percent said they didn’t know or didn’t respond.
In the survey — conducted by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the Bar-Ilan University Center for International Communication and the Anti-Defamation League — 29 percent said Romney would better promote Israel’s interests, compared with 22 percent for President Obama.
Obama was well-received in Israel during a campaign trip in 2008. And the fact that America elected its first black president — and one whose middle name is Hussein — had a particular resonance in the region.
“For a moment people felt that President Obama was the Messiah,” said Einat Wilf, a centrist in the Israeli Parliament. “I remember actually thinking the day that he got elected, no person should ever get elected with these kinds of expectations.”
“In general American politics has come back to earth,” she added. “We’re back to a normal election between two smart, capable people on policies, on character.”
Most here are either unfamiliar with Romney’s Mormon faith, or are not bothered by it. The controversy over Mormons posthumously baptizing Jews, including Holocaust victims — something that church leaders have apologized for — has not resonated either.
Some here are just excited that Romney is here, continuing what some have called the “Israel Primary.”
“We’re just suckers for any expressions of support, of love,” Wilf said. “We can never get enough of that; anything that has to do about Israel just being the greatest place in the world. You will get very far with flattery.”
Advisers for Obama, who has not visited Israel as president, have said he would come if he is reelected.