Obama Challenges Romney, Gingrich Attacks on Israel Policies

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama and American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) President Lee Rosenberg at the AIPAC conference in Washington on March 4, 2012. Photographer: Ron Sachs/Pool via Bloomberg

President Barack Obama, speaking to the biggest pro-Israel group in the U.S., sought to bolster his strength among Jewish voters as he challenged Republican assertions that he’ll permit Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.

“If during this political season you hear some questions regarding my administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts,” Obama told more than 13,000 people attending the annual Washington conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“And remember that the U.S.-Israel relationship is simply too important to be distorted by partisan politics,” he said.

Obama won in 2008 with 78 percent support from Jewish voters, according to national exit polls. Democrat Obama’s campaign is seeking to maintain that support in swing states with large Jewish populations, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Nevada.

As president, Obama’s had public disagreements with the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, who visits the White House for meetings with Obama today, about issues such as limiting Jewish settlement construction in Palestinian areas and as to when a strike might be needed to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. The discord has given Republicans a chance to appeal to Jewish voters and spotlight foreign policy and national security, a traditional strength of their party.

Iranian Nuclear Weapons

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, speaking yesterday in Snellville, Georgia, said Obama’s reelection would lead to Iran having a nuclear weapon. “It’s pretty straightforward,” Romney told more than 1,000 voters in a high school cafeteria. “If Barack Obama gets re-elected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon, and the world will change.”

“This is a president who has failed to put in place crippling sanctions against Iran,” Romney said. “He’s also failed to communicate that military options are on the table and, in fact, in our hand, and that it’s unacceptable to America for Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized Obama’s Iran policy as ineffective.

“We’ve had no evidence that the president is prepared to take steps to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” Gingrich said on CNN’s “State of the Union” show yesterday. “They talk and the Iranians build. They talk and the Iranians build. And we’re being played for fools.”

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, in Memphis, Tennessee, said yesterday Obama isn’t “doing very much” to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon.

Obama’s Commitment

Obama devoted much of his speech yesterday to his personal record and commitment to the Jewish state’s security.

“There should not be a shred of doubt by now -- when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back,” Obama told the policy forum, which will also hear from the Republican candidates before it ends tomorrow. Obama noted his opposition to a Palestinian bid for statehood through the UN, his support for U.S. funding to deploy a missile defense system and international diplomatic support for Israel.

Obama in his speech said there was “too much loose talk of war,” which undercut the effect of sanctions by driving up the price of oil that Iran exports. Obama assured Aipac that “I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say.” He said that included “all elements of American power” including the military.

No Containment Policy

“Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said.

Not all Republicans were as critical as the presidential candidates. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said in an interview after Obama’s speech that the president deserved “credit where credit is due” because he “was definitive in saying we do not support a policy of containment.”

At the same time, Cantor said Obama gave mixed messages about whether the U.S. would support military action and whether nuclear capability, short of assembling a bomb, was unacceptable. “One walks away scratching his or her head as to really where things stand,” said Cantor.

In an article last week on ForeignPolicy.com, Republican strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie said the Democratic president is politically vulnerable on foreign policy issues and that the Republican candidate should draw Jewish voters’ attention to Obama’s “naivete” in dealing with Iran.

Threat to Israel

“The Republican candidate must make clear the existential threat to Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran, not only because it would lead to a better policy but also because it will reduce the president’s support among this key voting bloc,” they wrote.

Obama’s top campaign strategist, David Axelrod, called their assessment “an absurd notion.” Obama’s “been a very strong leader in this regard,” Axelrod said on ABC’s “This Week” program. “If you don’t believe that, ask the remnants of al-Qaeda who are on the run.”

As the Aipac forum opened yesterday, Republican Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, said in a panel discussion that “no president” in recent history had done more than Obama to “delegitimize and undermine” Israel than Obama, and predicted he would lose re-election. Cheney drew a mix of applause and boos, reflecting the divisions within the audience among Republican, independent and Democratic Jews.

Political Football

Jane Harman, the former Democratic congresswoman from California who heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and was on the same panel, countered by saying it was a “grave mistake” to turn support for Israel “into a political football.”

Obama’s remarks satisfied some audience members while others remained uneasy about the level or timing of a U.S. military commitment to Israel against Iran.

Obama supporter Jeffrey Rush, a 71-year-old real estate developer from Santa Monica, California, said the president succeeded in “100-percent reaffirming” his confidence and had counteracted doubts raised by “naysayers.”

Harvey Belfer, 73, of Paradise Valley, Arizona, said he hopes the U.S. would support Israel militarily, though Obama didn’t specifically say the U.S. would support a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran.

“I’m not 100 percent sure until someone makes that statement,” Belfer, a retired investor, said.

Netanyahu’s View

Netanyahu said he was gratified to hear Obama reiterate his position that Iran mustn’t be allowed to build a nuclear weapon and that the option of using military force remains.

“I appreciated that he made clear that when it comes to a nuclear-armed Iran containment is not an option,” Netanyahu said in Ottawa before leaving for Washington.

The Israeli leader also cited Obama’s affirmation that Israel has the right to act on its own if needed. “I very much appreciated the fact that he said Israel has the right to defend itself by itself against any threat,” he said.

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, a Texas congressman, said the U.S. shouldn’t interfere in the Iran-Israel standoff.

“It doesn’t make any sense to bomb a country that is no threat to anybody just because they might get a weapon,” Paul said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “I’d try to calm it down a little bit,” he said, “but I don’t think we should tell Israel what they should and shouldn’t do.”

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