President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney both spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone yesterday amid a campaign debate over how to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
Obama’s 20-minute call with Netanyahu, the president’s only publicly announced one-on-one discussion with a foreign leader this week during the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York, followed weeks of tensions between the two over how aggressively to confront Iran. Within hours, Romney spoke with Netanyahu on a day when the Republican presidential nominee again criticized Obama’s handling of turmoil in the Middle East.
The U.S. and Israel are in “full agreement” on the goal of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, the White House said in a statement. Netanyahu “welcomed President Obama’s commitment before the United Nations General Assembly to do what we must to achieve that goal.”
Obama spoke to the General Assembly on Sept. 25.
Romney, who has repeatedly criticized Obama for not meeting with Netanyahu while the prime minister is in the U.S., told reporters after speaking with the Israeli leader that while he believed diplomacy can resolve the standoff with Iran, military action must not be ruled out.
“We spoke about his assessment of where the red line ought to be drawn, and my own views with regards to Iran,” Romney said of the conversation.
Romney has sought to use signs of differences between Obama and Netanyahu over Iran to raise doubts with American Jewish voters about the president’s commitment to Israel and his ability to manage turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa. The Obama administration, in yesterday’s statement, said the U.S. alliance with Israel is “unshakeable.”
Netanyahu has been pushing the U.S. and western nations to set a “red line” at which point Iran’s nuclear development would warrant a military response.
Obama, while urging more time for negotiations and for economic sanctions to pressure Iran, has said the U.S. won’t allow the Islamic Republic to build a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu, in a Sept. 27 speech to the General Assembly, held up a cartoon-style drawing of a bomb as a prop to get international attention for his call for the U.S. to issue a more direct warning to Iran.
“By next spring, at most next summer, at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and moved on to the final stage,” Netanyahu said. “From there it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks, before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”
Obama and Netanyahu both attended the UN session in New York this week, though not at the same time. Israeli media reported earlier this month that the U.S. president rebuffed Netanyahu’s request for a meeting, which Obama aides denied. The administration blamed schedule conflicts. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Netanyahu for 75 minutes after the prime minister’s UN speech.
Obama and Netanyahu spoke for about an hour Sept. 11 after Netanyahu told reporters in Jerusalem that nations that “refuse to put a red line before Iran don’t have the moral right to place a red light before Israel.”
Romney suggested that Obama has been moving his way by making stronger statements about Iran. He said he would take a tougher stance than Obama has, seeking an international indictment of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide and treating its diplomats “like the pariah they are.”
Netanyahu’s “views were made very clear in his United Nations speech, and we very much have the same interest, to make sure that Iran does not develop nuclear capability, which would threaten the existence of Israel, threaten devastation, potentially, in other nations of the world,” Romney said.
Like Obama, Romney said he expects the matter can be resolved through negotiations. “I certainly hope that we can prevent any military actions from having to be taken,” he said.
Romney made his comments to reporters as his campaign plane headed to Bedford, Massachusetts, for a fundraiser held nearby.
Earlier yesterday, Romney continued to blast Obama for having referred in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” program to recent anti-American protests and attacks in Muslim countries and the upheaval in Syria as “bumps in the road” to democratizing the region. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans were killed during an assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
“I don’t consider 20 or 30,000 people dying in Syria just a bump in the road, or a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt a bump in the road,” Romney said at the Valley Forge Military Academy and College in Wayne, Pennsylvania. “I don’t consider the killing of our diplomats in Libya as a bump in the road, and I sure as heck don’t consider Iran becoming nuclear a bump in the road.”
Romney is trying to undercut Obama’s support from Jewish voters as polls show him trailing the president nationally. Both campaigns have been increasing their focus on Florida, a state where Jewish residents are an important voting bloc.
Vice President Joe Biden, campaigning yesterday in Florida, which has 29 electoral votes, said Romney can’t win the general election if he loses there.
“We win Florida, this race is over,” the vice president said.
Foreign policy and national security remain areas of strength for Obama. By a margin of 49 percent to 38 percent, respondents to a Bloomberg National Poll conducted Sept. 21-24 said Obama would be better suited than Romney to cope with unforeseen events in the Middle East. Forty-nine percent endorse the Obama administration’s approach to Iran.