The Republican presidential front-runners used appearances before a conservative Jewish audience Wednesday to criticize President Obama’s foreign policy as weak and confused, while pledging to strengthen the U.S. alliance with Israel should they be elected.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney told a forum hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) that his first foreign trip as president would be to Israel. A few hours later, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) promised to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital.
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Wednesday’s forum represented an explicit challenge to Obama and the traditional Jewish support for Democratic candidates. Republicans believe that there is an opportunity to peel away some of Obama’s Jewish backers, particularly by attacking his policies toward Israel. Obama has argued that he has consistently supported Israel’s security needs and political interests, noting his opposition to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations this year.
Support for Obama stable
Obama’s poll numbers among Jews have remained stable throughout the fall, hovering above his overall ratings nationally. In the latest Gallup poll, 51 percent of Jews approved of the way Obama is handling his job, and 42 percent disapproved. But those numbers mark the lowest ratings of the president’s term among Jews.
Obama has endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and urged the two sides to negotiate an agreement based on Israel’s pre-June 1967 boundaries. Those talks on future borders would include land swaps to accommodate large Jewish settlement blocks built on territory claimed by the Palestinians as part of their future state.
The two-state solution has been a policy goal shared by Obama’s Republican and Democratic predecessors. But neither Romney nor Gingrich mentioned the formula — the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel — as the model for a future peace.
“One thing we have heard here is a stepping back from decades of bipartisan consensus on how to achieve peace in the Middle East,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a Jewish lobbying group that favors the two-state approach. “The politics around Israel have warped policy to the extent to which you may get a president who no longer thinks that a two-state solution is a good thing.”
Romney and Gingrich offered sharp critiques of Obama’s economic record, but some of their harshest words focused on the administration’s approach toward Israel at a time of growing international concern over Iran’s nuclear program and a changing political landscape across the Arab Middle East.
Romney listed the Middle Eastern nations that Obama has visited — including such U.S. allies as Turkey and Saudi Arabia — before noting that the president has so far skipped Israel.
“In the past three years, Obama has instead chastened Israel,” Romney said.
Romney also said that Obama has been “timid and weak in the face of the existential threat that Israel faces from Iran,” promising, as Obama has, that “Iran’s ayatollahs will not be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons on my watch.”