Republican presidential candidates took to the stage at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum in Washington on Wednesday, criticizing U.S. President Barack Obama's Middle East policy, particularly his record on Israel and Iran.
Presidential hopefuls addressed the audience one by one at the Ronald Reagan building in Washington DC, presenting their views on the economy, health care, foreign policy in general and the Middle East in particular, and then answered questions from the audience.
Republican Ron Paul, not known as a supporter of Israel, was not invited.
Since the departure of Herman Cain from the race, most of the attention has been focused on former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Romney seemed much more focused and concise in his responses - but Gingrich got much more applause from the audience.
Most of the responses were familiar to the audience from the earlier debates, and the rhetoric almost seemed to be taken from Obama administration officials' speeches with "unshakeable commitment to Israel." Indeed, this time, the Jewish audience got a concentrated dose of support for Israel.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who recently lost some points in polls to Newt Gingrich, took time to criticize Obama's Middle East policies.
"He visited Egypt, Syria - no, not Syria - Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey. He even offered to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet in three years in office, he hasn't found the time or interest to visit Israel, our ally, our friend," to which the audience replied with enthusiastic booing.
"Over the last three years President Obama has instead chastened Israel," Romney continued.
"In his inaugural address to the United Nations, the president chastised Israel but had almost nothing to say about Hamas launching thousands of rockets into Israel's skies. He's publicly proposed that Israel adopt indefensible borders. He's insulted Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. And he's been timid and weak in the face of the existential threat that Israel faces from Iran. These actions have emboldened Palestinian hard-liners, and they're now poised to form a unity government with terrorist Hamas. And they feel they can bypass Israel at the bargaining table," he said.
"President Obama has immeasurably set back the prospect of peace in the Middle East," he added.
Romney declared that his future policies "could not be more different. I will travel to Israel on my first foreign trip. I will reaffirm, as a vital national interest, Israel's existence as a Jewish state. And I want the world to know that the bonds that exist between Israel and the United States are unshakable. I want every country in the region that harbors aggressive designs against Israel to understand that their ambition is futile and that pursuing it will cost them very dearly."
Referring to Iran, Romney said, "I would not meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He should be excluded from diplomatic society. In fact, he should be indicted for the crime of incitement to genocide under Article III of the genocide convention. And on my watch, Iran's ayatollahs will not be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons. A nuclear-armed Iran is not only a threat to Israel; it's a threat to the entire world. Our friends must never fear that we will not stand by them in an hour of need, and our enemies should never doubt our resolve."
Romney went on to say that the U.S., "Should treat the Iranian diplomats, business people, and leaders like the pariah they are as long as they're pursuing nuclear weaponry."
He asserted that the U.S. should engage in covert and overt activities to encourage voices of dissent, in Iran, adding that, "Ultimately regime change is what's going to be necessary." He also expressed his support for both military action and sanctions against Iran's nuclear program.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich discussed the recent controversial speech given by the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium on anti-Semitism.
"This is an administration which, frankly, should be firing the ambassador to Belgium, who gave a stunningly anti-Semitic speech," Gingrich said. "This is an administration which, frankly, should be reprimanding the Secretary of Defense for an insulting performance the other day."
He also criticized Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's speech at the Saban forum last week, where he called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to "get to the damn table." Gingrich described the speech as "outrageous."
"Panetta is a fine domestic politician, but his speech was outrageous. How about saying to Hamas, give up violence and come to the table? How about saying to the PLO, recognize Israel and come to the table? This one-sided continuing pressure that says it's always Israel's fault, no matter how bad the other side is, has to stop. The fact that Secretary Clinton would talk about discrimination against women in Israel, and then meet with Saudis? " he said.
Gingrich also said that "in a Gingrich administration, on the opening day, there will be an executive order about two hours after the inaugural address. We will send the Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as of that day."
On Iran, Gingrich promised to fund "every dissident group" and to sabotage Iran's oil supply, to promote the regime change which, he argued, in the long run is the only rational policy.
Texas Governor Rick Perry accused the Obama Administration of a "torrent of hostility" toward Israel. "It seems to be a natural expression of this administration's attitude toward Israel", he said. Perry also tried to modify his remarks in one of the previous debates on "zeroing out" foreign aid, including aid to Israel". "Strategic defensive aid to Israel under a Perry administration will increase," he said.
Senator Rick Santorum said, "We have to make it very clear to Iran that the United States - the United States, I didn't say Israel, because it's in our security interest - will stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, period. We cannot sit and hope to contain Iran. We need to say very clearly that we will be conducting covert activity to do everything we can to stop their nuclear program."
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman said that, for him, "All options are on the table. And it means that when Israel strikes up that conversation, as I believe they will, you better be prepared to remember and put in place what that relationship and what that alliance actually means."
Rep. Michele Bachmann who spoke last concentrated mostly on criticizing Obama, saying he's been "ambiguous with Iran," mentioning his weakness and appeasement policies "emboldened Palestinians to seek statehood at the UN," which she called 'the most overrated organization in the world."
She also promised, if elected, to move the Embassy to Jerusalem, and recognize annexation of any settlements Israel would chose to annex.
"President has delegitimized Israel by describing Israel as a 60 year old occupation", she said. "He abandoned prior U.S. policy that Israel is entitled to defensible borders, the former Administration's commitments who said no right of return for the Palestinian so-called 'refugees.' He calls them to return to the indefensible borders. I guarantee you without any reservation: I will never call for dividable Jerusalem."
On Iran, Bachmann said "our options are diminishing by the day. The President will stand with Occupy Wall Street - but he won't stand with Israel. We have to accelerate covert operations and cyber operations in Iran. We must order the CIA director to do every effort necessary to stop the Iranian bomb. The Pentagon must prepare a war plan."
Republican Jewish coalition CEO Matt Brooks concluded the event saying "you've witnessed history today: the next president of the U.S. was on this stage.".
The Democratic National Council quickly arranged a response call with Robert Wexler, former member of Congress from the Democratic Party and the president of the Washington-based S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East, who called the Republican presidential hopeful attacks on President Obama a "theater of the absurd,", listing joint military joint exercises, military assistance, and help with the Israeli Embassy in Cairo crisis as examples of cooperation between the current U.S.administration and Israel.
Wexler responded also to what seemed to be the leitmotif of the Republican attacks - weak leadership of President Obama. Mentioning the killing of Osama Bin-Laden, Wexler said this and others are "examples of solid presidential leadership."
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