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With Romney visit, Israelis worry about becoming a partisan issue

Presidential challenger Mitt Romney is promising to give Israel a freer hand with Iran while President Obama announced $70 million in additional military aid to the country.

By Correspondent / July 29, 2012

US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney places a note in the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site July 29. Romney would back Israel if it were to decide it had to use military force to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, a senior aide said on Sunday.

Nir Elias/Reuters

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Tel Aviv

Mitt Romney’s visit to Jerusalem on Sunday prompted an escalation in the competition among candidates to demonstrate who’s a stronger supporter of the Jewish state.               

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The campaign of the Republican nominee portrayed itself as more aggressive against Iran and more willing to give Israel a free hand in a potential attack than the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the president on Friday announced $70 million in additional military aid to help develop a rocket system to intercept missiles from Gaza and Lebanon.  

The high profile battle surrounding the state of ties between the allies has inserted Israel into the campaign as never before. But Israeli officials and analysts are anxious about that spotlight, and would prefer to be more of an afterthought. That’s because an election debate over Israel could damage long term ties between they countries by risking the Jewish state's long cultivated bipartisan support in Washington.

"We don’t want to be part of the issue," says an Israeli diplomat, who was not authorized to speak. "We have very strong bi-partisan support and we want to keep it that way. We want there to be strong relations with the US. Not with blue or red."    

Speaking to reporters, Romney foreign policy aide Dan Senor said that if Israel were to launch a lone attack on Iranian nuclear sites, Mr. Romney "would respect that decision," seemingly going further than the Obama administration toward a green light for Israel.  

Romney is scheduled to make a speech shortly and will hold a fundraising dinner tomorrow morning. 

This is the second presidential election in which the Jewish state has become a campaign stop. In 2008, both Obama and Sen. John McCain took breaks from campaigning in the US to visit here.

Romney's broader critique

But the open bickering between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over the peace process with the Palestinians and how to confront Iran has made support for Israel an issue for debate, and part of Romney’s broader foreign policy critique that the administration has failed to stand behind allies and projected weakness.

Romney’s visit is also seen as an attempt to indirectly highlight the fact that President Obama did not visit Israel in his first four years of office when he visited other American allies in the Muslim world, stirring up criticism from some Israelis.

"Romney feels that the president may be somewhat vulnerable. Romney may sense that there is some Israeli dismay at some Obama policies and sees an opportunity," said David Horvitz, the editor of the Times of Israel news website. "Unfortunately, Israel has become an issue of greater partisan debate than it used to…. That’s tremendously to Israel’s detriment."

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