Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney vowed Sunday to stand with Israel against any threat from Iran, eager to show that he’s a better friend than President Barack Obama.
“We must lead the effort to prevent Iran from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability,” Romney said. “We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course. And it is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself and that it is right for America to stand with you.”
He said the tough talk from a possible U.S. president is critical to let Iran’s leaders know that they face unified and unrelenting opposition to their plans.
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“Make no mistake, the ayatollahs in Iran are testing our moral defenses,” he said. “They want to know who will object and who will look the other way. We will not look away nor will our country ever look away from our passion and commitment to Israel.”
Romney’s talk did not spell out any significant difference from Obama, who also refuses to rule out military action as a last resort.
But he drew an unspoken distinction with Obama, who has complained about open talk of warfare to stop Iran. Obama in March said there was “too much loose talk of war.”
“It is sometimes said that those who are the most committed to stopping the Iranian regime from securing nuclear weapons are reckless and provocative and inviting war,” Romney said. “The opposite is true. We are the true peacemakers.”
In a distraction from his message of the day, Romney had to back away from a statement from a top adviser promising support for unilateral Israeli military action against Iran.
“If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision,” said Romney’s senior foreign policy advisor Dan Senor.
Several hours later, the Romney campaign issued a clarification.
“Gov. Romney 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,” Senor said in the new statement emailed to reporters. “In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. Gov. Romney recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with it.”
In a move that surprised Israeli officials, Romney in his speech called Jerusalem the capital of the State of Israel, telling the audience, “It is deeply moving to be in Jerusalem – the capital of Israel.”
The United States does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital, and the US embassy has remained in Tel Aviv despite repeated requests by Israel to move it to Jerusalem. The White House this week dodged questions about Israel’s capital, mindful that the status is a major point of peace negotiations. Palestinian leaders maintain that East Jerusalem will be the capital of their future state and that the city is currently a “divided capital.”
Palestinian officials declined to comment over Romney’s statements. One official told McClatchy it was “unsurprising” since the former Massachusetts governor had not attempted to meet with any Palestinian officials other then Palestinian President Salam Fayyad, and had not asked for the Palestinian position on any of the issues he raised.
Romney was warmly embraced by Israeli officials Sunday, starting with a visit with long-time friend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister, who has wrestled with Obama, pointedly dismissed the effectiveness of Obama’s efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear programs through sanctions. “The sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota,” Netanyahu said.
“The message here is that Romney is a friend of Netanyahu and therefore a friend of Israel,” said one Israeli aide to Netanyahu. “We think that will resonate with Jews everywhere.”
Romney also discussed Iran in meetings with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz.
In addition to his photo ops with Israeli leaders, Romney traveled to the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism, and donned traditional headgear to walk with several of Israel’s most prominent rabbis to the wall.
He was greeted enthusiastically by many in the crowd, who were observing the Jewish holy day of Tisha B’Av. Many in the crowd approached Romney to shake his hand, while others could be heard shouting “Beat Obama, governor,” and “Good luck!”
Ann Romney visited the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed the night before he was crucified, and the Garden Tomb, believed by some to be the site of Jesus’s burial and resurrection.
Republican advocates in Jerusalem said that Romney’s message was aimed at garnering support from Jewish American voters.
“When it comes to protecting American interests and the interests of the Israeli people, the Republican party has been a stalwart and loyal friend to Israel and the Jewish people for the past several administrations. That is something we want to bring home to the Jewish voters of the United States,” said Marc Zell, co-chairman of Republicans Abroad in Israel.
On Monday morning, before he leaves, Romney was scheduled to hold a fundraiser in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Guests paid $50,000 per couple, or pledged to raise $100,000 for Romney’s campaign. Sheldon Adelson, a long-time donor to the Republican Party, was also expected to attend the Jerusalem fundraiser.”
Sheera Frenkel is a McClatchy Special Correspondent