WASHINGTON — Republican presidential hopefuls took turns lambasting President Barack Obama's policy toward Israel on Wednesday, accusing him of being timid in the face of Iran's attempt to develop nuclear weapons and allowing a dangerous distance to develop between the U.S. and its long-time ally in the Middle East.
Recent remarks about anti-Semitism by Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, also figured in the assault on the administration that became a rotating audition before Jewish GOP activists by seven would-be Obama replacements.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said that the president, by his actions, has "emboldened Palestinian hard-liners who now are poised to form a unity government with terrorist Hamas and feel they can bypass Israel at the bargaining table."
"President Obama has immeasurably set back the prospect of peace in the Middle East," Romney contended.
Jon Huntsman, Obama's first envoy to China, suggested that Gutman's comments about anti-Semitism reflect "ambiguity that the administration has toward Israel.
"I say these aren't speeches that are cooked up at local level within the embassy. They go high up within the State Department, probably within the National Security Council," he said.
The ambassador's comments were first broached by a question from the audience to Huntsman.
In reply, he said he was less concerned about demanding the ambassador's resignation, as other GOP hopefuls have done, than in finding out who had vetted the remarks.
In a speech earlier this month, Gutman identified two types of anti-Semitism, a traditional kind that he said must be combatted, and a newer strain in Europe that results from "tension, hatred and sometimes even violence between some members of Muslim communities or Arab immigrant groups and Jews ... largely born of and reflecting the tension between Israel, the Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab states in the Middle East over the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem.
"It, too, is a serious problem. It, too, must be discussed and solutions explored," he added.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania also spoke before the group, the Republican Jewish Coalition, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry were on the program later.
Any criticism of Obama drew applause from the audience, and the White House and its allies were quick to counter the allegations lodged by the contenders for the Republican nomination.
In a statement aimed at Romney, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said it was "highly irresponsible for a presidential candidate to spread reckless accusations about our foreign policy that could lead anyone to question the United States' commitment to Israel's security." Lowey is a senior Democrat on the House panel with jurisdiction over foreign aid.
Mindful of the political stakes, the White House also arranged briefings and a Hanukkah party at the White House for Jewish leaders on Thursday. Obama is expected to speak next week to a conference of the Union for Reform Judaism.
The maneuvering nearly a full year in advance of the presidential election reflects not only the importance of Jewish voters in the political base of any Democratic president, but also the traditionally outsized importance of their financial contributions for any presidential hopeful of any party.
Jews accounted for a mere 2 percent of the electorate in 2008, and Election Day polling showed Obama drew the support of 78 percent of them. More recently polling by the Gallup organization has placed his approval among Jews at 51 percent.
Even given those polling statistics, the eventual Republican presidential contender is highly unlikely to capture a majority of the Jewish vote in 2012. The often unspoken, more modest goal of the party is to hold down the level of the president's support in hopes it can make the difference in one or more of the states likely to be most competitive.
Against that backdrop, there was little reason to hold back, and the Republicans who took a turn on Wednesday's stage didn't.
"In his inaugural address to the United Nations, the president chastised Israel but said little about the thousands of Hamas rockets raining into its skies. He's publicly proposed that Israel adopt indefensible borders," said Romney, who is running roughly even with Gingrich at the head of the GOP pack in recent polls.
Obama has 'insulted its prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, and he's been timid and weak in the face of the existential threat of a nuclear Iran," Romney said. He repeated a pledge to make his first foreign trip as president to Israel.
"I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel's existence as a Jewish state. I want the world to know that the bonds between Israel and the United States are unshakable. I want every country in the region that harbors aggressive designs against Israel to understand that their ambition is futile and that pursuing it will cost them dearly."
Like Romney, Huntsman said it is unacceptable for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, a possibility that Israel views as a direct threat to its own survival.
"If you can't live with a nuclear Iran, and I can't, then you have to say all options are on the table, and for me all options are on the table" he said, implying the threat of a pre-emptive military strike against a nuclear weapons facility.
AP reporter Brad Klapper contributed to this story.