Mitt Romney plunged into an international stalemate during a 30-hour trip to Jerusalem, saying halting a nuclear Iran is the “highest national-security priority” as he sought to draw a sharp distinction with President Barack Obama.
As the sun set against the ancient stone walls of the old city, the Republican presidential candidate delivered a foreign- policy broadside, declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel and proclaiming that it’s “right” for America to stand with the Jewish state and employ “any and all measures” to stop Iran from developing atomic capabilities.
“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,” he said in his speech. “The opposite is true.”
The address was the centerpiece of a six-day, three-country international tour designed to boost Romney’s diplomatic credentials and portray the former Massachusetts governor and private-equity executive as a credible commander-in-chief to voters back home.
Bookending Romney’s trip to Israel, Obama has sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and security advisers John Brennan and Thomas Donilon on separate visits to the country over the last two weeks. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is traveling to Israel this week.
Panetta told reporters on his plane yesterday to Tunis that the U.S. has achieved an “unprecedented” level of defense cooperation with Israel. As for Iran, Panetta said that economic sanctions would be ratcheted up in the coming weeks and have a far greater economic impact on the Islamic Republic.
“It’s sending a very strong message to them that they can’t continue doing what they’re doing,” he said.
During his stop in Israel, Romney made a surprise visit to the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s most sacred sites, met with top Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and shared a private meal with his family at the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
While Romney received diplomatic briefings, campaign staff cared for top fundraisers, including Las Vegas casino executive Sheldon Adelson, one of the biggest donors supporting Republicans. Several dozen contributors joined Romney on the trip, where they were ushered to front-row seats at his speech and taken on tours of the city. Before flying to Poland today, the last leg of his tour, he held a breakfast reception and question-and-answer session at the King David hotel with several dozen Americans.
As donors filled their plates from a lavish Israeli buffet, Romney took his seat at the head of the long conference table, next to the other, unofficial guests of honor: Adelson and his wife, Miriam.
He praised the entrepreneurial drive and spirituality of Israel and extolled the drive of Israelis to develop and protect their country.
“This is a people that have long recognized a purpose in this place in their lives greater then themselves,” he said.
The Israel visit thrust Romney, a relative foreign-policy novice, into one of the world’s most challenging conflicts. He arrived at a time of heightened tensions, with leaders reassessing their regional strategy in the wake of escalating violence in Syria and the July 18 suicide attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.
Romney repeated his consideration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in an interview in the city with CNN, while saying he would “want to work out with the government” of Israel the timing of moving the embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
With the Israelis and Palestinians both claiming Jerusalem as their capital, the U.S. has treated the issue as one to be worked out in negotiations over an Arab-Israeli peace that paves the way for a Palestinian state.
Romney had vowed to refrain from releasing new policies or attacking Obama while abroad, in line with the custom of not speaking ill of a sitting president from overseas.
Yet, his muscular language about Israel’s right of self- defense marked an effort to heighten the contrast between him and Obama.
While the Obama administration hasn’t ruled out a military strike, the two allies have disagreed openly about how much time to give economic sanctions and negotiations to persuade Iran to scrap much of its atomic work.
“Words matter, and I think priorities matter,” Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said on ABC’s “This Week.” “The reason he’s there now is to make sure that he sends a strong statement as a potential future president to the people of Israel.”
At a briefing, foreign policy adviser Dan Senor told reporters that “if Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing the capability, the governor would respect that decision.”
Romney tried to temper that language in a television interview several hours later, saying he wasn’t distancing himself from current U.S. policy.
“What we have said and with which I concur is that we should use every diplomatic and political vehicle that’s available to us to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear capability state,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
The failure of talks between Iran and six world powers to curb what the West sees as the Islamic Republic’s push to develop atomic weapons has fueled concerns that Israel would opt for a solo strike. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful, for generating electricity and medical purposes.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says his country has more to fear from a nuclear Iran than from the consequences of a pre-emptive strike against its atomic facilities. The Israeli government will need to make a decision, he said on July 25, though the Obama administration wants to see if Iran backs down as international sanctions increasingly hurt its economy, saying there is time for military action as a last alternative.
The dispute over timing has further soured the already rocky relationship between the Obama administration and Netanyahu.
Campaign aides have emphasized Romney’s relationship with the Israeli leader, dating back to when they worked together at Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s, as a way of building support among American Jews.
The two shared a meal with their families last night to mark the end of Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning and fasting that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Jewish temples of Jerusalem.
In a joint media appearance, Netanyahu highlighted their long friendship by referring to Romney as “Mitt.”
“I want to thank you for those very strong words of support and friendship for Israel and for Jerusalem that we heard today in your speech,” Netanyahu said.
Romney visited one of the holiest sites of the Jewish people, stopping by the Western Wall to leave a prayer in its stones. As Romney made his way down to the wall, donors were escorted around the site by finance director Spencer Zwick and Romney’s brother, Scott.
New York lawyer Phil Rosen, a campaign fundraising bundler, was permitted past Israeli soldiers protecting a security perimeter to embrace Romney. The two took a quick snapshot to remember the moment.
Flanked by two rabbis and wearing a black yarmulke, Romney walked to the wall amid applause and shouts from a gathered crowd.
“This is the campaign for American Jews,” Channah Nebi said in Hebrew, as she peered over the divide separating men and women to watch Romney.
To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lerer in Jerusalem at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com