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Romney's Israel speech: Iran will be 'highest national security priority'

The presumptive Republican candidate for president offered few hints of what he would do differently from Obama aside from avoiding public disputes with Israel. 

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At stake is an attempt by Romney to make inroads with the Jewish American community who have solidly supported Democratic presidential candidates. In 2008, Obama was favored by 74 percent of American Jews, second only to African-Americans among demographic groups, but now that support is at only 68 percent, according to a recent Gallup survey. Some believe that only a slight shift could help capture a crucial swing state like Florida, where Jews make up a significant chunk of the registered voters.

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Some have accused Netanyahu, who is known to be on better terms with Republican politicians than Democrats, of feeding into the polarization. Standing alongside Romney on Sunday, the Israeli prime minister took a dig at the administration by saying the administration’s policy of sanctions and diplomacy to pressure Iran had failed to delay Iran's drive for nuclear weapons.

"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," he said.

Just two weeks ago Secretary Clinton said in Jerusalem that sanctions and diplomacy had brought unprecedented pressure on Tehran and needed more time to work.

Bilateral polarization

Some see the increased partisanship as a natural expression of the affinity between the two countries’ respective ideological rivals: The Republicans are more drawn to Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, and Democrats find common cause with social democrats on the Israeli left, like the Labor Party. A scheduled visit between Romney and the Israeli Labor Party leader was canceled. 

Republicans and the Israeli right see common cause "on three issues: the land of Israel, religion, and family values," says Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster. "There’s a natural connection to the Israeli left to the Democrats, and vice versa: That’s based on share values of democracy, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and protection of minorities."

But that risks upsetting a key strategy by pro-Israel allies in the US of cultivating support among both Democrats and Republicans in order to ensure that there’s continuity of US support for Israel regardless of who controls the White House or the Congress.

"It was very easy to stay out of this when American presidential candidates didn’t come to Israel three or four months before the election," says one Jewish American official active in boosting bilateral ties. "If it looks like you are backing one and the other gets elected, you are in trouble."

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