GOP Candidates Knock Obama on Israel, Iran

GOP presidential hopefuls blast Obama's Middle East policy.

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The GOP presidential candidates all agreed on two things Wednesday--the Obama administration has worked to undermine the Unites States' relationship with Israel, and the biggest immediate threat to both Israel and the U.S. is Iran becoming a nuclear state.

Taking turns speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition's presidential forum, front-runners and long shots alike bashed President Obama's Middle East policies.

Some, like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, highlighted the fact that Obama has yet to visit Israel, though he has been to Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia. Both Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said their first foreign trip would be to the Jewish state.

Recent remarks by several Obama administration officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who called on Israelis to "just get to the damned [negotiating] table," were criticized by the candidates.

[Governor Christie blasts Obama on leadership.]

"Obama has immeasurably set back the prospect of peace in the Middle East," said Romney, a longtime GOP front-runner.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has suddenly risen to the top of many early state and national polls, said the United States needs "a dramatically rethought strategy in the Middle East."

"This one-sided, continuing pressure that says it's always Israel's fault no matter how bad the other side is has to stop," he said to much applause.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the president "systematically undermines" the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Bachmann went so far as to say Obama has "emboldened" Israel's enemies because of his administration's positions.

"It seems as if lately our president has forgotten the importance of Israel to the United States," she said.

[See the most recent political cartoons.]

While top-tier candidates Romney and Gingrich received the strongest reception, their presentations appeared to be slightly tailored stump speeches. But former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Perry, and Bachmann in particular were able to rev up the audience by concentrating their remarks on Israel and Middle Eastern policy. Perry sought to clarify a pronouncement he had made in an earlier debate about zeroing out all foreign aid, including that to Israel, by saying he considers such monies sent to Israel "strategic defensive aid" and vowed to actually increase that support. Gingrich and Bachmann also won applause for promising to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The other universal focus of the candidates was the danger of a potentially nuclear Iran. Most agreed strict sanctions should be levied against the country to help prevent such armament. Several also agreed that removing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was likely a necessary course of action.

"The only rational long-term policy is regime replacement," said Gingrich, who added that he would covertly target the country's gasoline supply and "sabotage it every day."

Gingrich also vowed to follow the "Reagan playbook" and "fund every dissident group in the country" in hopes of creating unrest.

Romney also said "ultimately regime change is what's going to be necessary."

"Iran nuclear means a world that is not safe for Israel, not safe for Europe, not safe for the United States," he said.

Santorum and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman also joined in accusing Obama of practicing an "appeasement" strategy. Santorum said Obama's efforts extended to "every thug and hooligan" leading Middle Eastern countries at the expense of Israel. Huntsman said, "It is time for the world to understand who our friends and allies are."

Texas Rep. Ron Paul did not attend the event.

[Gingrich plans busy first day as president.]

In a conference call to reporters, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz defended the Obama administration's Middle East policies.

"Because of [Obama's] leadership, we have raised U.S. military assistance to unprecedented levels, sending Israel the largest-ever security assistance funding in 2010, and raising that to $3 billion for 2011," she said. "Contrast that with what Mitt Romney and other leading presidential candidates said less than a month ago when they advocated starting Israel's foreign aid budget at zero."