Netanyahu: Iran tops his agenda in Romney meeting

July 22, 2012 - 12:40 PM
Mideast Israel Palestinians

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 22, 2012. The Israeli government is asking the country’s Supreme Court to delay the evacuation of an unauthorized West Bank settlement outpost by a month. The court has ordered the Migron outpost dismantled by Aug. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Gali Tbbon, Pool)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu skillfully skirted U.S. politics on Sunday by refusing to endorse either presidential candidate, but openly lamented that Iran's nuclear program remains intact four years since the last election.

The comment by one of the nation's closest allies — with heavy political influence among the U.S. electorate — hinted at a reproach of President Barack Obama, who opposes a near-term military strike on Iran and has focused U.S. policy instead on diplomatic pressure and sanctions.

Iran has defended its nuclear program as peaceful and rebuffed international efforts to dismantle it.

Netanyahu said he will raise the issue with Mitt Romney when he meets with the Republican presidential hopeful on July 28, just as he discussed the matter with Obama as the Democratic candidate in the 2008 election.

The Israeli prime minister said he will tell Romney "about Israel's desire for peace and also about Israel's concern with the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, it's still with us four years later," Netanyahu told CBS' "Face the Nation."

Netanyahu later told "Fox News Sunday" that Obama has stood with him in stating unequivocally that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.

"But the jury is out on all of us, because the real thing — the real question — is not stated policy but actual results on the ground," he said.

The U.S. relationship with Israel, and what to do about Iran's nuclear program, represents one of the starkest contrasts between Obama and Romney. Romney has not explicitly threatened a U.S. military strike on Iran if he is elected. But he has suggested he would take a tougher stance than Obama.

"If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon," Romney said last year at a GOP primary debate focused on foreign policy.

Obama rejects the criticism that he has been weak in dealing with Iran, and his aides point to what they call unprecedented U.S.-Israeli security cooperation.

But Netanyahu — who firmly controls a supermajority in the Israeli parliament and rides high in opinion polls — has become a complication for Obama. Their frosty relationship has fueled the perception that U.S.-Israeli relations have deteriorated — a potential problem for Obama with Jewish voters in the swing state of Florida.

Meanwhile, 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.

Romney's visit to Israel is part of a broader foreign policy trip that includes stops in England and Poland. It is widely seen as his opportunity to shore up support among Jewish voters and evangelicals, bolster his credentials on foreign policy and test his prowess on an international stage.

While in Israel, Romney was expected to meet with Netanyahu, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro and Israeli President Shimon Peres. Romney advisers won't say if he will visit the West Bank, but he does plan a meeting with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister.

The trip will be Romney's fourth visit to Israel. He visited in 2011 and gave a speech at the Herzliya Conference in 2007 during which he said Iran's leaders "represent the greatest threat to the world since the fall of the Soviet Union, and before that, Nazi Germany."

When asked whether he would be more comfortable with Romney than Obama as president, Netanyahu said he wouldn't go there publicly.

"We extend bipartisan hospitality to both Democrats and Republicans," he said.