White House moves to put Republicans on defensive over Iran, Israel policies

President Obama ramped up his attacks on his Republican rivals last week, pushing back at the idea his polices are anti-Israel.

Obama used a speech at the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference and a press conference to try to put Republicans on the defensive over Iran. 

He ripped the GOP presidential field for employing overheated rhetoric on the campaign trail about going to war to prevent the country’s nuclear program, and sought to portray himself as supportive of Israel and tough toward Tehran.

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Republicans though remain confident that they can win Jewish voters from Obama over Iran policies, and they dismissed the president’s offensive. GOP strategists say the rhetoric of Obama’s speech at the AIPAC conference, where the president said he had “Israel’s back,” did not match his comments at Tuesday’s press conference.

This week’s attacks signal that Iran is likely to remain a key campaign issue, showing the concerns of the White House over the GOP attacks and their confidence that Obama can win the argument.

Obama’s tone at Tuesday’s press conference was decidedly more aggressive, where he accused the Republican field of bluster just hours after Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich had all attacked him in speeches to AIPAC as weak on Iran.

“Those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities,” Obama said. “They’re not commander in chief. When I see the casualness with which some of these candidates talk about war, I’m reminded … of the decisions I have to make in sending these men and women into battle.

“This is not a game,” Obama said.

But Romney’s campaign indicated it doesn’t intend to back off the criticism of Obama on Iran.

Romney penned an op-ed before his AIPAC speech Tuesday that accused Obama of being the “most feckless president” since Jimmy Carter.

On the campaign trail and in debates, Romney has said repeatedly that he will stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but if Obama is re-elected, Iran will get the bomb.

“President Obama is trying to insulate himself from criticism and declare the Iran issue off limits because he knows his naïve policies have failed to dissuade Iran from its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “The American people will not tolerate his nakedly political attempt to squelch debate on the most pressing national security issue facing America.”

Jewish voters tend to lean Democratic, but Republicans this year are making an active effort to win them away from Obama, accusing the president of being unsupportive of Israel.

The most frequent attacks had been about Obama’s call for the 1967 border to be the starting point for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But this year Iran has dominated the debate on Israel as tensions have escalated over its nuclear program.

Israel has hinted that it may attack Iran to stop Tehran’s nuclear program, while Obama has pushed for time to let sanctions take their full effect.

While Obama has said that he does not support a policy of containment, and that he will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned at AIPAC that time was running out to stop Iran. He said that sanctions and diplomacy aren’t working and said Israel retains the right to defend itself.

The two leaders’ White House meeting Monday, combined with AIPAC speeches from Obama, Netanyahu and the GOP field, raised the stakes of the Iran debate this week, giving both sides one of their biggest opportunities in 2012 to make the case to Jewish voters.

Republicans have picked up on the tensions between Obama and Netanyahu, and Romney emphasized to AIPAC that there would be “no gap” between his administration and Israel.

“Election year talk from President Obama doesn’t erase the president’s attitude toward Israel that created well known tensions between the prime minister and Obama,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.

But Romney’s attacks on Obama have also mobilized Democrats, who see it as an opportunity to attack Romney on foreign policy.

The Democratic National Committee held a conference call with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) shortly after the GOP field’s AIPAC speeches Tuesday, while 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) blasted Romney on the Senate floor and then in an op-ed the next day.

“At a moment when so much is on the line,” Kerry said on the floor, “we all ought to remember the nuclear issue with Iran is a deadly serious business that should invite sobriety and serious-minded solutions, not sloganeering and sound bites.”

Democrats view foreign policy, an issue where the party often faces an uphill battle in presidential elections, as a strength for Obama. He authorized the killing of Osama bin Laden, ended the war in Iraq and helped oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

But Iran poses risks to Obama’s foreign policy record, and a potential Israeli strike on Iran in the fall could change the nature of the presidential race. There’s also the danger domestically that conflict with Iran — or even the potential for conflict — could cause prices at the pump to skyrocket.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said that Obama took a step backward with Jewish voters by implying that he had Israel’s back at AIPAC, but then qualifying the statement at his press conference that it was not a military doctrine.

“Obama I think made a strategic error by trying to transform the Iran issue even more into a partisan football,” said Rubin.

Obama supporters felt he strengthened his position on Israel. Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J-Street, a dovish pro-Israel Jewish advocacy group, said the president was effective in deflecting Republican attacks by showing his support for Israel and that he’s in control of the Iran situation.

“I think it’s very important the president was on offense,” said Ben-Ami. “The president has a really strong case to make that he has a powerful pro-Israel record to run on, and those who are looking to say otherwise are doing it for purely partisan political gain.”