By Lisa Lerer
December 14, 2011
President Barack Obama’s policies toward Israel are under attack from Republican presidential candidates, who accuse him of undermining security in the Middle East.
Addressing a Republican Jewish group in Washington yesterday, the candidates said Obama has coddled Iran, emboldened terrorist groups and bestowed more sympathy on Palestinians than Israelis.
“This one-sided, continuing pressure that says it’s always the Israelis’ fault no matter how bad the other side is has got to stop,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose support in the polls is surging.
Gingrich and five other Republican presidential candidates addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition at a daylong forum hosted by the group in Washington.
The Republican candidates have attempted to make Israel an issue in the 2012 campaign as they jockey for support of Jewish voters who traditionally have backed Democrats overwhelmingly. In speech after speech, candidates lambasted Obama’s foreign policy and questioned his support for Israel.
Gingrich called for the overthrow of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying the U.S. should push for regime change in Iran and Syria. He vowed to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a sensitive topic in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. And, if elected, he promised to appoint John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as secretary of state, prompting wild applause from the standing- room-only audience.
His closest rival, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, told the several hundred activists that Ahmadinejad should be “indicted for the crime of incitement to genocide.”
“Ultimately, regime change is what’s going to be necessary” in Iran, Romney said, standing at a podium placed on a raised platform with a decal of the presidential seal.
Romney and Gingrich have called on Obama to fire the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, a Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors, after the diplomat said recently that some anti-Semitism stemmed from tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
Republican hopeful Jon Huntsman Jr., a former ambassador to China under Obama, said the comments reflected deeper anti- Israel attitudes within the Obama administration.
“These aren’t speeches that are cooked up at the local level and at the embassy,” Huntsman said. “They go high up within the State Department.”
White House Defense
The White House and its Democratic allies moved quickly to parry the attacks.
Obama aides highlighted public support for the administration from Israeli leaders, pointing to positive comments from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
“We have raised U.S. military assistance to unprecedented levels, sending Israel the largest-ever security assistance funding in 2010,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told reporters on a conference call.
Bill Burton, a former Obama aide now leading independent fund-raising efforts for his re-election, accused Romney and Gingrich of continuing to “play politics with false attacks on the president.”
“President Obama has consistently fought for a secure Israel and peace in the Middle East,” he said in a statement.
With the election in mind, Democrats are also increasing their outreach campaign to Jewish voters. Obama aides plan private briefings today on a range of topics followed by a Hanukkah party at the White House for Jewish leaders. Next week, Obama plans to address several thousand North American Jews at an annual conference of the Union of Reform Judaism.
Obama won election in 2008 with 78 percent support from Jewish voters, according to national exit polls.
The Republican goal is to win increased support from Jewish Democrats and independents to help the party carry swing states, including Florida.
According to the National Jewish Democratic Council, a 10 percent decline in Jewish support for the party could shift the vote by 98,000 in Florida, 35,000 in Pennsylvania, 18,000 in Ohio and 8,500 in Nevada, states targeted as battlegrounds in the 2012 presidential election.
At a fundraiser in New York on Nov. 30, Obama called Israel one of the most important allies of the U.S.
“I try not to pat myself too much on the back, but this administration has done more in terms of the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration,” Obama said at the home of Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress and a member of the executive committee of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
At yesterday’s forum, Republicans questioned Obama’s assertion. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum compared Obama’s policies in the Middle East to actions taken by England before World War II to try to avert the conflict.
“For every thug and hooligan, for every radical Islamist, he has had nothing but appeasement,” said Santorum.
Romney also accused Obama of adopting “a course of appeasement” that has weakened the U.S. military and caused the nation to shirk commitments to allies and aid enemies.
If elected, Romney vowed to make a visit to Israel his first foreign trip.
“I want the world to know that the bonds that exist between Israel and the United States are unshakeable,” he said.
Romney called Obama “timid and weak” in responding to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, said he has insulted Netanyahu and his administration has proposed Israel adopt “indefensible borders.”
“President Obama has immeasurably set back the prospect of peace in the Middle East,” he said.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, working to undo damage caused by saying he would reduce Israeli foreign aid “to zero,” pledged to increase all forms of “strategic, defensive aid” to the country.
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, an advocate of federal spending cuts, stressed the importance of American foreign aid. “Today more than ever, Israel requires the necessary aid that the United States gives,” she said.
The coalition didn’t invite Representative Ron Paul of Texas to the forum, citing his “misguided and extreme views.” In candidate debates, Paul has argued that the U.S. should have less involvement in Israeli affairs and criticized foreign aid to the country.