Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, Romney says to standing ovation
Speaking in Jerusalem, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney says preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons "must be our highest national security priority" and, in apparent criticism of Obama administration, says "standing by Israel does not mean with military and intelligence cooperation alone."
Shlomo Cesana, Yori Yalon, Mati Tuchfeld, The Associated Press and Israel Hayom Staff
U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney during a speech in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch
Romney inserts a note into the crevices of the Western Wall during a tour of Jerusalem, Sunday.
Photo credit: Moshe Milner / GPO
Standing on Israeli soil, presumptive U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Sunday declared Jerusalem to be the capital of the Jewish state and said the United States has "a solemn duty and a moral imperative" to block Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.
"It is a deeply moving experience to be in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel," Romney said.
"It is my firm conviction that the security of Israel is in the vital national security interest of the United States. And ours is an alliance based not only on shared interests but also on enduring shared values," he said. "Our two nations are separated by more than 5,000 miles. But for an American abroad, you can’t get much closer to the ideals and convictions of my own country than you do in Israel. We’re part of the great fellowship of democracies. We speak the same language of freedom and justice, and the right of every person to live in peace. We serve the same cause and provoke the same hatreds in the same enemies of civilization."
The Republican candidate also stressed that a different American response was needed to confront the danger posed by Iran to Israel. "Make no mistake: the ayatollahs in Tehran are testing our moral defenses. They want to know who will object, and who will look the other way," he said. "My message to the people of Israel and the leaders of Iran is one and the same: I will not look away; and neither will my country."
Romney warned of Iran's nuclear progress and underscored the importance of stopping the regime. "Today, the regime in Iran is five years closer to developing nuclear weapons capability. Preventing that outcome must be our highest national security priority.
"It would be foolish not to take Iran’s leaders at their word. They are, after all, the product of a radical theocracy. It is Iran that is the leading state sponsor of terrorism and the most destabilizing nation in the world," he said.
Underscoring U.S. support for Israel against Iran, Romney added, "We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with you. We have a solemn duty and a moral imperative to deny Iran’s leaders the means to follow through on their malevolent intentions."
He also differentiated between the aspirations of the Iranian regime and those of the Iranian people. "We should stand with all who would join our effort to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran — and that includes Iranian dissidents. Do not erase from your memory the scenes from three years ago, when that regime brought death to its own people as they rose up. The threat we face does not come from the Iranian people, but from the regime that oppresses them."
Romney also addressed the Ninth of Av, which marks the destruction of the Jewish Temple, saying, "It’s remarkable to consider how much adversity, over so great a span of time, is recalled by just one day on the calendar. This is a day of remembrance and mourning, but like other such occasions, it also calls forth clarity and resolve.
"The Jewish people persisted through one of the most monstrous crimes in human history, and now this nation has come to take its place among the most impressive democracies on earth," he said.
In what appeared to be an attempt to distinguish himself from Obama, who has trumpeted his military support for Israel as being unparalleled to that of previous U.S. administrations, Romney said, "standing by Israel does not mean with military and intelligence cooperation alone. We cannot stand silent as those who seek to undermine Israel, voice their criticisms. And we certainly should not join in that criticism. Diplomatic distance in public between our nations emboldens Israel’s adversaries."
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.
He did not say if he would order the embassy moved if he wins the White House, but strongly suggested so in a CNN interview.
"My understanding is the policy of our nation has been a desire to move our embassy ultimately to the capital (Jerusalem)," he said, adding, "I would only want to do so and to select the timing in accordance with the government of Israel."
Romney's declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel also set him apart from Obama, after White House spokesman Jay Carney avoided last week answering a question by a reporter over which city the current U.S. administration consider's Israel's capital.
Earlier Sunday, Romney and his wife, Ann, were given a presidential welcome by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who hosted the two at his official residence, and gave Romney an embrace befitting of close friends.
Ahead of his meeting with Netanyahu, Romney, who arrived in Israel Saturday night for a two-day visit, toured Jerusalem, visited the Western Wall, and put a note in its cracks, according to the well-known tradition.
Ann Romney even fasted on Sunday in solidarity with the Jewish people on its day of national mourning, Tisha B'Av (the ninth day of the month of Av).
But Romney's visit was not meant as a vacation, and the Republican presidential hopeful made a series of statements in Israel which he hoped would reverberate with Jewish voters in the U.S.
During his meeting with Netanyahu, Romney said, "We have a relationship between our nations which spans many years, and at the same time, is one based not just upon mutual interests, but also shared values. Your perspectives with regards to Iran and its effort to become a nuclear-capable nation are ones which I take with great seriousness and look forward to chatting with you about further actions that we can take to dissuade Iran from their nuclear folly."
Netanyahu replied, "Governor Romney, Mitt, it's a pleasure to welcome you here. I have to say that I heard some of your remarks a few days ago — you said that the greatest danger facing the world is of the Ayatollah regime possessing nuclear weapons capability. Mitt, I couldn't agree with you more, and I think it's important to do everything in our power to prevent the ayatollahs from possessing the capability. We have to be honest and say that all the sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota. And that's why I believe that we need a strong and credible military threat, coupled with the sanctions, to have a chance to change that situation."
Later, after Romney's speech in Jerusalem, a special dinner was hosted for the Republican candidate and his wife at the Prime Minister's Residence. Netanyahu said at the start of the dinner, "Mitt, I want to thank you for those very strong words of support and friendship for Israel and for Jerusalem that we heard today in your speech by the walls of Jerusalem. Jerusalem today is marking the destruction of the city thousands of years ago. As you see it’s been rebuilt by the Jewish people, open to all the three great faiths, vibrant, bustling, and as you said, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and Jerusalem will always be the capital of Israel."
Ahead of the dinner on Sunday night, Romney also met with President Shimon Peres who told his American guest that "The people of Israel appreciate America for being a steadfast ally of ours."
Romney responded that relations between his country and Israel were strong and would only grow stronger as times goes on.
During the meeting with Peres which centered on the Iranian threat, Romney said, "Like you we are concerned about Iran developing nuclear capability and feel that it is inconceivable that Iran will become a nuclear armed nation. The threat this would have against Israel, the region and the world is unacceptable.”
Romney also met with opposition leader MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima), and was scheduled to meet with Labor leader MK Shelly Yachimovich but the meeting was canceled at the last minute.
Fellow Labor MK Isaac (Buji) Herzog accused the prime minister's aides of cancelling the meeting. According to Herzog, Romney's people cancelled the meeting "without a satisfactory explanation" at the same time that Romney was with the prime minister at his official residence. The Prime Minister's Office denied the claim.
In addition, Romney met with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Following his statement that Jerusalem was Israel's capital, chief Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat was quoted by Israel Radio as saying, “Mitt Romney’s words are damaging, they harm peace, stability and security. ... We reject these statements completely.”
Israel is the second of three stops on an international trip for Romney in the weeks before he claims the Republican nomination at his party's national convention in Tampa, Fla.
He flew to the Middle East from Britain, where he caused a stir by questioning whether officials there were fully prepared for the Olympic Games. A stop in Poland will complete his trip.
Four years ago, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama also visited Israel as a candidate, part of a five-nation trip meant to establish his own foreign policy credentials.
A goal of Romney's overseas trip is to demonstrate his confidence on the world stage, but his stop in Israel also was designed to appeal to evangelical voters at home and to cut into Obama's support among Jewish voters and donors. A Gallup survey of Jewish voters released Friday showed Obama with a 68-25 edge over Romney.