Romney planning to visit Israel over summer

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By JOSH LEDERMAN, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Mitt Romney is planning a trip to Israel this summer, an aide to the likely GOP nominee said Monday.

Details about exactly when and where Romney will visit were not immediately available, and the aide spoke on the condition of anonymity because the aide was not authorized to speak publicly about the plans. But Romney was expected to meet during the trip with top Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The summer jaunt will take Romney away from the campaign trail during a key period of his general-election fight against President Barack Obama. But the trip could help Romney shore up support among Jewish voters, evangelicals and foreign policy hawks. It's also an opportunity for Romney, whose credentials in foreign affairs are limited, to bolster his image as a competent leader capable of navigating in one of the thorniest regions of the globe.

Romney, who has vowed that his first trip as president would be to Israel, relentlessly hammered Obama during the GOP presidential primary on his stance on Israel, accusing the incumbent president of throwing the Jewish state "under the bus" for stating that negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians should be based on Israel's 1967 borders.

"I think, by and large, you can just look at the things the president has done and do the opposite," Romney said in June when asked about Israel.

Obama and Democrats have vigorously defended his support for Israel, and the president argued in December he had done more for the critical U.S. ally than any other president. Democrats have summarily dismissed GOP claims that Obama is hemorrhaging support from Jewish voters, who also make up an important part of Obama's donor base.

Obama campaign spokesman BenLaBolt said Romney's upcoming visit would force him to explain what he meant about doing the opposite of Obama.

"Does that mean he would reverse President Obama's policies of sending Israel the largest security assistance packages in history?" said LaBolt. "Does it mean he would let Israel stand alone at the United Nations, or that he would stop funding the Iron Dome system? Does it mean he would abandon the coalition working together to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions?"

Iron Dome is an air-defense system designed by Israel to intercept short-range rockets and mortars frequently lobbed at Israel from the Gaza Strip. The U.S. has provided more than $200 million for the system.

Obama has yet to travel to Israel as president, but did visit in 2008 during his first presidential campaign.

Romney has made the trip on multiple occasions — most recently in January 2011, when he met with Netanyahu as part of a Mideast swing that also brought him to Afghanistan and Jordan. He also spoke in 2007 at a prominent security conference in the Israeli coastal city of Herzliya.

Romney's relationship with the U.S.-educated Netanyahu dates back decades. Romney and the Israeli leader have a longstanding friendship stemming from their brief overlap in the 1970s at Boston Consulting Group. Both men worked as advisers for the firm early in their careers, before Romney co-founded his own private-equity firm.

Although Netanyahu has carefully avoided taking sides in the U.S. election, he has had a frosty relationship with Obama. Netanyahu has been jokingly referred to in the Israeli media as "the Republican senator from Israel," and is considered to be much closer ideologically to Republicans than Democrats on economic and foreign policy issues.

The New York Times first reported plans of Romney's upcoming visit.

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Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP.

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