New problems for Obama on Israel as Republicans renew attacks

Tensions over President Obama’s relations with Israel are on the rise once again as the administration tries to put out fires on multiple fronts.

Comments in the past week about Israel from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. ambassador to Belgium have sparked fresh criticism about the administration’s attitude toward Israel.

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At odds with the Jewish lobby — and the Senate — over its push to water down sanctions against Iran’s central bank in the Defense authorization bill, the White House is also under attack from a GOP presidential field actively courting Jewish voters.

At this week’s Republican Jewish Coalition forum, GOP candidates likened Obama’s foreign policy to “appeasement” and said he was being too hard on Israel and not hard enough on Iran.

“This president appears more generous to our enemies than he is to our friends,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said Obama “has confused engagement with appeasement, and it has inspired Israel's enemies.”

Obama gave a blunt response to his critics at a press conference Thursday that offered a glimpse at his reelection strategy on foreign policy.

“Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al Qaeda leaders who have been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement,” Obama said.

Jewish voters went decidedly for Obama in the 2008 presidential election, but Republicans are hoping that attacking him on Israel and Iran will push the Jewish vote toward the GOP in 2012.

Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have had a tense relationship at times, including public disputes over settlement activity in the West Bank. Republicans have also criticized Obama for suggesting that the 1967 borders be the starting point of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

The president gave a speech at the United Nations in September that was applauded by the Jewish community as he attempted to stop the Palestinians from applying for a declaration of statehood at the .UN.

But comments from Obama’s lieutenants have put the administration on the defensive over Israel once again.

Last Friday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly told the Israelis to “get to the damn table” and negotiate with the Palestinians in an off-the-cuff remark during a Q-and-A at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum.

“Just get to the damn table,” Panetta said. “The problem right now is we can't get them to the damn table to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences — you know, we all know what the pieces are here for a potential agreement.”

That weekend at the Saban Forum, Israeli media reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton derided “anti-Democratic” measures in Israel that target liberal non-governmental organizations and women.

U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, who is Jewish and the son of a Holocaust survivor, said last week that some modern anti-Semitism is growing as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It is a tension and perhaps hatred largely born of and reflecting the tension between Israel, the Palestinian Territories and neighboring Arab states in the Middle East over the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem,” Gutman said, according to prepared remarks.

Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the two Republican presidential front-runners, called on Gutman to resign. The Obama administration stood by him, condemning anti-Semitism in all forms without specifically addressing Gutman’s comments.

“Barack Obama must tell the American people today whether he condemns or condones the deeply wrong statements by his Secretary of Defense and Ambassador to Belgium,” Gingrich said. “We have the right to know whether Secretary Panetta’s harsh criticism of Israel is merely his own personal opinion, or a reflection of the policy of his Commander in Chief.”

Democrats have come to the president’s defense, accusing Republicans of trying to hide their lack of foreign policy experience.

“Republicans keep trying to hide behind smears and untruths because they know they cannot compete with the facts of the president’s stellar record on Israel,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) said in a statement released to The Hill.

“This president has secured the largest package of foreign aid in Israel’s history and has enhanced the country’s security time and time again.”

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But as the president battles with his GOP foes on Israel, a separate fight over Iran is also erupting that has the pro-Israel lobby squaring off against the administration.

In a 100-0 vote, the Senate added an amendment to the Defense authorization bill last week imposing sanctions on businesses and governments that deal with the Iran central bank.

The Obama administration has pushed to change the amendment, which was sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), in conference committee, but pro-Israel Jewish groups and some Democrats in Congress have come to its defense.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) sent a letter to lawmakers and the American Jewish Committee sent one to Panetta, both urging strong sanctions against Iran.

“The urgency of the Iranian nuclear threat, and the severe consequences of failing to end it,” the AJC letter said, “provide compelling reasons for the Administration and Congress to join together in intensifying the existing sanctions regime, including support for, and — ultimately— vigorous implementation of, the Menendez-Kirk amendment.”

Republican candidates’ attacks against Israel go hand-in-hand with their attacks against Iran, which Israel views as its largest threat, as the GOP presidential hopefuls say Obama isn’t doing enough to stop Iran from advancing its nuclear ambitions.

The White House says it’s pressuring and isolating Iran through sanctions and diplomatic means, but emphasizes it hasn’t taken any options off the table, including military ones. That was made clear this week after Iran claimed it had captured a U.S. drone flying over Iran soil.

While the GOP presidential candidates courted the Jewish vote this week, the president will get to make his own pitch next week at a conference hosted by the Union for Reform Judaism.