The gaffes of Republican nominee Mitt Romney have put him up against the wall several times, including the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages. But his latest “stump” in Israel, with the obligatory picture of Romney at the Wailing Wall, has even brought out a critique from the New York Times editorial page. Romney is visiting Israel and veering hard to the right, even outdoing the neocons that fueled our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Here is what the editorial says, followed by my own comments.

Mr. Romney Stumps in Israel

Mitt Romney made a point of insisting that he would adhere to an unwritten rule and often violated rule about candidates not criticizing each other or contradicting American foreign policy on foreign soil. About the only effort he made to keep that promise during his stop in Israel was to avoid mentioning President Obama by name.

Beyond that, with some of the biggest investors in Republican politics in tow, Mr. Romney made no effort to disguise the target and intent of rhetoric that was certainly inflammatory but largely free of any sense of how we would carry out policies he was championing.

The message — on Iran, Jerusalem, the Palestinians — was all anti-Obama: Mr. Romney would be a much better friend to Israel than Mr. Obama ever could be. He would be much tougher on Iran. He would recognize Jerusalem as the capital. For good measure, he insulted the Palestinians by declaring that cultural differences — not decades under Israeli occupation — are the reason Israelis are more successful economically. It’s hard to say how this could affect policy if he were president, but it is not encouraging.

The real audience for Mr. Romney’s tough talk was American Jews and evangelical Christians, some of whom accompanied him on his trip. He is courting votes and making an aggressive pitch to donors, including Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate with the hard-line pro-Israel views who is spending more money than any other American — $100 million — to defeat Mr. Obama.

Despite what Mr. Romney says, all American presidents have been pro-Israel, including Mr. Obama. But that doesn’t mean subcontracting American policy to Israeli leaders or donors. Mr. Romney hit an applause line by calling Jerusalem Israel’s capital and agreeing to consider moving the United States Embassy there from Tel Aviv. But those policies would complicate America’s ability to act as a broker in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Mr. Romney did American interests no favors when he praised Israeli economic growth while ignoring the challenges Palestinians face living under Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza. He showed troubling ignorance by understating the income disparity between Israel and those areas. Israel, in 2009, had a per capita gross domestic product of roughly $29,800, while, in 2008, the West Bank and Gaza had a per capita gross domestic product of $2,900, according to the Central Intelligence Agency.

On Iran’s nuclear weapons program, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney support trying to halt it with sanctions and negotiations but say military action is an option. It is unclear if Mr. Romney, as president, might structure sanctions differently and how committed he is to negotiations.

Already, one of his advisers is contending that Mr. Obama’s strategies have “failed.” On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel seemed to agree. Meanwhile, Mr. Romney ruled out any outcome that would contain rather than eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, and he strongly defended Israel’s right to strike Iran in self-defense. Mr. Obama also recognizes this right, but he has urged Israel to hold back, at least while negotiations are under way.

The tough talk raises concerns that Mr. Romney and his hard-line advisers may be more eager to take military action. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a threat to Israel, the United States, its Arab neighbors and its own people. But there should be no illusions about the steep costs and limited returns of any attack on Iran’s nuclear complex.

Presidents often say things on the campaign trail that they don’t mean or regret and reverse once in office, but voters can only judge a candidate on his words. The more Mr. Romney digs in on a particular position, the harder it will be to dig out, especially if the people egging you on in the first place have just donated $100 million toward your campaign.

Romney’s venture into foreign policy territory is a lesson in what not to say if you want to lead the most powerful nation in the world. It started off with a criticism of the British preparations for the Olympics on their home turf: even Romney’s most avid supporters were at a loss to explain why he would be so undiplomatic. He came off as London tabloid fodder, being dubbed “Mitt the Twit.” So it was on to Israel with a retinue of rightwing supporters. As the editorial notes, Romney used the occasion to pander to the extreme right, practically urging Israel to take on Iran, basically telling the Palestinians they are cultural losers and promising to do what no U.S. President, Republican or Democrat, has been partisan enough to do: move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Mitt seems to think that the Jewish vote only has one view on Israeli politics, that no Arabs are planning to vote Republican this year and that the Jewish casino magnate bankrolling attacks on Obama to the tune of a hundred million of dollars would make a better Secretary of State than Hillary Clinton. As the New York Times observes, no American President has been unfriendly to Israel; certainly not Obama.

Romney seems to be utterly sold on complete pandering to the tea partiers and Bible Belters who actually despise him for not being a true conservative and (although they rarely say so in public) for belonging to a religious sect that has long been considered a cult. No doubt his handlers (those who are not brave enough to jump a sinking ship) will walk back his comments. But just imagine what a President Romney would say in meeting the newly democratically elected leaders of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia? Would he invite them to join a coalition attacking Iran? Perhaps serve ham sandwiches and ban Turkish coffee from the official luncheon? I suspect the most ardent apocalyptic fringe of the Bible Belt will jump for joy at such extreme support for Israel, especially if some lunatic like Michelle Bachmann proposes a House bill providing financial and moral support for Israel to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem before the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Washington. Then it is only a matter of identifying the “What’s My Line” Antichrist and Beast and reserving tickets to watch the mother of all religious battles, Armageddon, as Gog and Magog descend from Putin’s Russia. The Born-Again-and-Ready-to-Rapture crowd might as well vote for Romney and let Daniel’s 70 weeks finally come to pass, since they will be raptured out of here before the seven years of Tribulation, during which, according to the Bible Belter prophecy watch, Mr. Adelson and all other Jews will suffer a worst holocaust than any other antisemitic pogrom in history.

Since President Obama is attacked by the extreme right as being a stealth Muslim, it would seem that questions about Romney’s religion of choice are in order. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, not only accepted the scenarios in the New Testament book of Revelation as things to come, but saw it playing out here in America:

Joseph Smith’s apocalyptic notions led him in a slightly different direction. The founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons, was convinced that the New Jerusalem would center in Jackson County, Missouri. Smith led a surveying party there, and on May 19, 1838, he staked out the holy city of Adam-ondi-Ahman. Persecution from neighbors and Smith’s assassination in 1844 interrupted the preparations for the coming kingdom, but in recent years, a small band of Mormons has returned to resume the task, to await the resurrection of Adam, the prophets, and church leaders, and the onset of the millennium.

I suspect that Romney will not run his foreign policy based on the bizarre apocalyptic ideas of the founder of his religious sect, but he has made no effort to silence the apocalypse mongers who support Israel so the prophecy-ordered world can end in a bang. In so doing he is painting himself into a corner that is looking more and more like Barry Goldwater territory every day. Except, in Romney’s case, in your heart you know he is not right no matter how much he panders to the extreme right.

This commentary has also been posted on HNN.

[Note: For an excellent assessment by Bill Beeman of Romney’s Israel trip, click here.]

Daniel Martin Varisco