U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney presented himself as Israel’s best friend as he spoke aggressively on Sunday about protecting Israel from Iranian nuclear threats and suggested that he was open to breaking with U.S. policy dating to 1967 by moving the United States embassy to Jerusalem if the Israelis asked.
Israel is the second of three stops on an international trip for Romney intended to burnish his foreign policy credentials before he claims the Republican presidential nomination at his party’s national convention in Tampa, Florida, in late August.
While Romney has been highly critical of President Barack Obama’s policy toward Iran and the presumed threat to Israel, he has offered no specifics about how his policy would be substantially different, according to The Associated Press.
But on the issue of the location of the U.S. embassy in Israel, which is in Tel Aviv, Romney told CNN that he thought the U.S. embassy should be moved to Jerusalem if the Israelis make that request. The Israelis have repeatedly sought such a move.
“My understanding is the policy of our nation has been a desire to move our embassy ultimately to the capital (Jerusalem),” he said, adding, “I would only want to do so and to select the timing in accordance with the government of Israel.”
The issue has been a major diplomatic headache for the Americans, who have refused to make the shift because it would imply the sanctioning of Israel’s incorporation of Arab East Jerusalem after its capture in the 1967 Mideast war.
The United States, despite its close ties with Israel, has refused to locate its embassy in Jerusalem out of its effort to be a trusted voice by both sides in efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Despite losing control of their portion of the ancient city, Palestinians have refused to drop their demand that it become the capital of any state accorded them in return for peace with Israel.
Jerusalem is home to deeply important religious sites central not only to Judaism but also Islam and Christianity.
Romney flatly called Jerusalem the Israeli capital in the very first words of his speech Sunday, delivered before the made-for-television backdrop of the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Romney’s embrace of Israel was on display throughout the day when he met with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders. Wearing a yarmulke, he also visited the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, where he was mobbed by worshippers. In addition, Romney met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
The former Massachusetts governor’s speech, delivered 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) from U.S. soil, was clearly designed not only for Israelis but more importantly it was aimed at appealing to evangelical voters at home and to cut into Obama’s support among American Jews. A Gallup survey of Jewish voters released Friday showed Obama with a 68-25 edge over Romney.
In his speech, Romney had harsh words yet again for Iran, saying he respected Israel’s right to defend itself against what the Jewish state considers an existential threat. He steered clear of overt criticism of Obama, even though he said the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran “has only become worse” in the past five years.
“Make no mistake, the ayatollahs in Iran are testing our moral defenses. They want to know who will object and who will look the other way,” Romney said. “We will not look away nor will our country ever look away from our passion and commitment to Israel.”
He spoke in the aftermath of a statement by one of his top foreign policy advisers who declared that Romney “would respect” an Israeli decision to launch a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The United States, many of its European allies and Israel say Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon. Iran says its uranium enrichment is part of a peaceful domestic nuclear program for energy and medical research. So far all attempts to negotiate an end to the enrichment program have failed.
Israel fears that Iran soon will have moved its enrichment facilities into impregnable underground locations, meaning time is running out to destroy them with aerial bombing.
The presidential hopeful was greeted warmly earlier by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an old friend of his, who has at times had a strained relationship with Obama.
Netanyahu issued his customary call for stronger measures behind the sanctions to prevent Iran from developing an atomic bomb, which Israel says would be a threat to its existence. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
“We have to be honest that sanctions have not set back the Tehran program one iota and that a strong military threat coupled with sanctions are needed to have a chance to change the situation,” Netanyahu said, according to Reuters.
In a Sunday interview with CBS News, Romney appeared, however, to distance himself from remarks made by foreign policy adviser Dan Senor. Romney said the United States supported Israel’s right to defend itself but would not expand on his remarks, saying he would hold to U.S. political tradition of not differing with positions taken by a sitting government.
Obama has sought to dissuade Israel from a unilateral attack on Iran to allow time for tough sanctions to take a toll on the Islamic Republic’s economy and further isolate the country. Obama has said the United States holds open the option of military operations against Iran but has insisted now is not the time for an attack, either by the U.S. or Israel.
Senor was associated with the so-called neo-conservative foreign policy establishment that pressed former President George W. Bush to invade Iraq under the mistaken assumption that the country had weapons of mass destruction.
“If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing the capability, the governor would respect that decision,” Senor told reporters in a preview of the speech.
Senor later tried to clarify his comments in a written statement, saying that the candidate “believes we should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is his fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded.”
Obama also has affirmed the right of Israel to defend itself, but in contrast to Romney, he has warned of the consequences of an Israeli strike on Iran.
“Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” Obama told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobbying group, in March. “Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built.”
In recent days, the Obama administration has taken steps to reassure Israel of its support. Obama approved an increase in assistance to strengthen a missile defense system designed to protect Israel from rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip.
Israel, widely assumed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed state, has warned it is only a matter of time before Iran’s nuclear program achieves a “zone of immunity” in which uranium enrichment facilities buried deep underground will be invulnerable to bombing.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, arriving in Tunisia at the start of a week-long trip to the Middle East and North Africa, defended U.S.-Israeli defense cooperation under Obama.
“I’m not going to comment on what political candidates say or don’t say,” Panetta said.
“I’m proud of the defense partnership that we’ve built over the past several years. The U.S.-Israel defense relationship, I believe, is stronger today than it has been in the past,” the Pentagon chief told reporters traveling with him.
In an effort that appeared timed to upstage Romney’s visit to Israel, Obama signed a measure on Friday to strengthen U.S.-Israeli military ties.
Romney arrived in Jerusalem after a difficult few days in Britain, where he made the mistake of criticizing the host country’s preparations for the Olympic Games. From Jerusalem, Romney travels to Poland where he will meet in Gdansk, birthplace of the Solidarity labor movement, with Prime Minister Donald Tusk and former President Lech Walesa.
On Monday morning, Romney will be attending a high-dollar campaign fundraiser at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem for American supporters in Israel that is expected to raise more than $1 million, including American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has pledged to spend more than $100 million to defeat Obama.
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