JERUSALEM -- Standing on Israeli soil, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared Jerusalem to be the capital of the Jewish state yesterday and said the United States has "a solemn duty and a moral imperative" to block Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.
"Make no mistake, the ayatollahs in Iran are testing our moral defenses. They want to know who will object and who will look the other way," he said. "We will not look away, nor will our country ever look away from our passion and commitment to Israel."
The presidential election hovered over the speech. The Old City formed a made-for-television backdrop behind Romney, while some of his campaign donors listened in the audience.
Romney's declaration that Jerusalem is Israel's capital was matter-of-fact and in keeping with claims made by Israeli governments for decades, even though the United States, like other nations, maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv.
His remarks on the subject during his speech drew a standing ovation from his audience, which included Sheldon Adelson, the American businessman who has said he will donate millions to help elect Romney to the White House.
Romney's embrace of Israel was on display throughout the day when he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders. He also visited the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, where he was mobbed by worshippers. In addition, Romney met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
In his remarks, Romney steered clear of overt criticism of President Barack Obama, even though he said the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran "has only become worse" in the past five years.
Obama's former press secretary, Robert Gibbs, told ABC's "This Week" that the administration has delayed Iran's nuclear program. The president has imposed U.S. penalties against Iran and worked to tougher strictures applied by other nations. Recently, Obama approved an increase in assistance to strengthen a missile defense system that is designed to protect Israel from rocket attacks from Gaza.
The former Massachusetts governor stepped back from a comment a senior aide made a short while before the speech. "We recognize Israel's right to defend itself," he told the audience. The aide, Dan Senor, previewed the speech for reporters, saying that, "if Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing the capability, the governor would respect that decision."
Romney also tried to temper that language in a television interview several hours later, saying he wasn't distancing himself from current U.S. policy, Bloomberg News reported. "What we have said and with which I concur is that we should use every diplomatic and political vehicle that's available to us to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear capability state," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Pentagon officials have spoken publicly about the difficulty of such a strike and American officials have expressed concern about the destabilizing effect such military action could have in the region, even if carried out successfully.