Romney spoke to the Republican Jewish Coalition, one of six GOP presidential candidates invited to do so. Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) was not asked to speak to the group because of what organizers called his troubling policy toward Israel, perhaps stemming from Paul’s comments that he would cut foreign aid to Israel and other nations (see live-streaming video of the whole conference here).
The forum stands as an explicit challenge to Obama and the traditional Jewish support for Democratic candidates. Republicans believe there is room to peel away Obama’s Jewish support, particularly by attacking the president’s policies toward Israel. Obama says he has been consistently supportive of Israeli security needs and political interests, but many Republicans disagree.
This fall, Obama’s poll numbers among Jews have remained stable, 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, though they still represent an inverse of his standing among all Americans in Gallup polling.
One day after Obama sought to recast his presidency in populist terms, Romney offered a sharp critique of Obama’s economic record, saying the president was attempting to create an “entitlement society” that would replace “an opportunity nation.”
But some of his harshest words focused on Obama’s policy toward Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he has had a rocky relationship largely over the failure to restart dormant Israel-Palestinian peace talks.
He listed the Middle Eastern nations Obama has visited, noting that he had so far skipped Israel.
“In the past three years, Obama has instead chastened Israel,” Romney, one of the leading candidates for the GOP presidential nod, told the audience.
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 “on my watch, Iran’s ayatollahs will not be allowed to get nuclear weapons.”
“His policies have emboldened Palestinian hard-liners,” Romney said. “And immeasurably set back the prospects for peace in the Middle East.”
Obama’s most recent challenge regarding Israel and his Jewish support were explosive remarks delivered last week by his ambassador to Belgium.
The ambassador, Howard Gutman, described in a Nov. 30 speech at a conference on anti-Semitism in Europe what he called a new form of anti-Semitism arising from Israel’s policies in the Middle East. He contrasted that with traditional anti-Semitism — what he called “classic bigotry — hatred against those who are different and against minorities generally.”
Gutman was not at Wednesday’s forum, but his remarks were condemned by the RJC and several leading GOP presidential contenders.
Romney and former House speaker Newt Gingrich called on Obama to fire Gutman for the remarks, but so far the administration has stood by the ambassador. Romney did not revisit the issue in his speech on Wednesday.
Asked as a former ambassador for his view of the speech, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman told the audience Wednesday, “I would say that it speaks volumes about the continuing ambiguity of the U.S. relationship with Israel.”
“I think someone ought to ask for an explanation in full for who is responsible for the language,” Huntsman said, although he stopped short of saying as president he would recall Gutman from his post.
Gutman raised money for Obama in 2008, and in the Nov. 30 speech introduced himself as the son of a father who left his Polish hometown to join the resistance following Nazi Germany’s invasion, only to be told he looked “too Jewish.” When he returned after a week away, the Jewish section where he had lived “no longer existed,” he told the audience.
Gutman knew that his assertion that Israel’s policies, in the Middle East broadly and in the occupied Palestinian territories specifically, were fostering hatred toward Jews in Europe would be controversial. He apologized to his audience at the start of his talk “for not saying what you would expect me to say.”
But, Gutman said, this form of anti-Semitism “is a serious problem” and that “it too must be discussed and solutions explored.” He identified the “all too growing intimidation and violence directed at Jews generally as a result of the continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories and other Arab neighbors in the Middle East.”
“The analysis I submit is not served simply by lumping the problem with past instances of anti-Jewish beliefs and actions or those that exist today among minority haters under the uniform banner of ‘anti-Semitism.’ ”
Gutman identified “fortunate and unfortunate” elements of this form of hate, saying the “fortunate” aspect was the fact that “it means that, unlike traditional hatred of minorities, a path towards improving and resolving it does exist.”
Many supporters of Israel recoiled at the analysis, saying that it blames necessary Israeli security policies for the hatred against Jews outside the region. Among those groups that condemned the speech was the RJC, the host of Wednesday’s forum.
Within Israel, the military and intelligence agencies have long worried about the effect of Israeli policies on anti-Semitism in Europe, which a number of Israeli organizations have charted as on the rise.
Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.