Capitol Letter / Israel Is on on the Republican Candidates' Minds

Tuesday night's Republican debate was supposed to be about foreign policy, but it seemed all the candidates wanted to talk about was what to do about Iran.

Some Israelis probably wish the U.S. presidential hopefuls would talk less about our region, which is troubled enough without former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum declaring "All the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis, they're not Palestinians." Jerusalem could have probably also done without the lengthy discussion at the Republican debate in Washington Tuesday about the possibility of an Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

While they did cross some verbal swords on the issues of illegal immigration, liberty versus security and the future of relations with Afghanistan-Pakistan, many other important topics in this two-hour debate dedicated to foreign policy (such as the rise of China, the Euro zone crisis, the Arab spring and tension with Russia ), were ignored, as the candidates returned over and over to Israel and Iran, even when asked about other issues.

Former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain declared his possible support for an Israeli strike. "I would first make sure that they had a credible plan for success, clarity of mission and clarity of success. And if Israel had a credible plan, that it appeared as if they could succeed, I would support Israel, yes. And in some instances, dependent upon how strong the plan is, we would join with Israel for that," he said.

Congressman Ron Paul stuck to his isolationist stance, citing former Mossad head Meir Dagan who said "it would be the stupidest thing to do in the world".

Paul said he doesn't believe Israel would actually strike Iran - but if it did, "we need to get out of their way", he said. "They decide they want to bomb something? That's their business, but they should suffer the consequences. Israel has 200, 300 nuclear missiles, and they can take care of themselves. We don't even have a treaty with Israel. Why do we have this automatic commitment that we're going to send our kids and send our money endlessly to Israel?"

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann claimed that the debate over the possibility of Israel attacking Iran was "because Iran has announced they plan to strike Israel," quoting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying that "he wanted to eradicate Israel from the face of the Earth." The response generated some discussion, but the moderators tried to shift the debate to foreign aid to Africa.

To no avail, it turned out. The next to speak, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, returned to the topic of Iran and Israel, saying Washington needed to impose "crippling sanctions," on Tehran. "I know it's going to make gasoline more expensive," he said. "There's no price which is worth an Iranian nuclear weapon. And the right course is to show that we care about Israel, that they are our friend; we'll stick with them. If I'm president of the United States, my first foreign trip will be to Israel to show the world we care about that country and that region."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he would bomb Iran's nuclear facilities "only as a last recourse, and only as a step toward replacing the regime. No bombing campaign which leaves the regime in charge is going to accomplish very much in the long run. You have to seriously talk about regime replacement, not just attacking them."

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman accused President Obama of "missing the Persian spring," and then going to Libya, where the U.S. doesn't have any "definable interest," instead of going after Syria.

Texas Governor Rick Perry called for heavy sanctions against Iran. "If we're going to be serious about saving Israel, we better get serious about Syria and Iran, and we better get serious right now," he said.

It's the gasoline prices, stupid

Democrats were expecting attacks on President Barack Obama's Iran policy, and in the past day and a half have waged a campaign to explain the effectiveness of the current measures in isolating and weakening Iran.

But there are visible tensions created by this topic in Washington, with players trying to navigate the region's troubled water without beaching their campaign.

Sanctioning Iran does not appear to be an open-shut measure among Republicans. The hard-liners who complained this week that the French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the only tough guy among the world leaders to impose real tough sanctions on Iran, should have watched the reactions of participants at a focus group of Virginia Republicans sponsored by the Israel Project on Monday night.

Yes, Iran is dangerous and untrustworthy, participants said. But mention of any measure to confront Iran that might raise oil prices was apparently the red line, with this tough economy.

While seven out of seven said they'd support Iranian opposition efforts to overthrow the current government - along with increasing covert efforts by the U.S. to destabilize Iran's nuclear program, and six out of seven said they'd expand United Nations economic and diplomatic sanctions - only three supported boycotting companies that provide Iran with refined petroleum. Only two agreed with ending all taxpayer-funded government contracts with companies that do business with Iran or having Washington divest from Iranian businesses, if it meant possible financial losses for American companies.

U.S. Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner recently said sanctions on Iran's central bank would remain on the table.

But the focus group, which gathered in Alexandria, Virginia, apparently didn't think sanctions go far enough.

"They're saying put new sanctions on them. Is that going to make a difference? No," said one of the focus group participants.

But still, asked what do they want to hear from the Republican candidates, one man said he wants to hear "how they are going to stop Iran from blowing everything up."

Apparently, despite expressing solidarity for Israel and concern for its well being, the small group of non-Jewish Republicans made quite clear that at this point they care a lot more about the price of gasoline.