By Carol E. Lee
With a stroke of a pen on Friday, President Barack Obama gave Israel a long-distance embrace ahead of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s trip to the Jewish state this weekend.
Mr. Obama held an Oval Office photo-op for his signing of legislation that enhances U.S.-Israel security cooperation, saying the move underscores “our unshakeable commitment to Israel security.”
“I have made it a top priority for my administration to deepen cooperation with Israel across the whole spectrum of security issues,” Mr. Obama said. “I hope that, as I sign as this bill, once again everybody understands how committed all of us are – Republicans and Democrats – as Americans to our friends in making sure that Israel is safe and secure.”
Mr. Obama also noted the U.S.’s funding this week of an additional $70 million for Israel’s missile defense system, which the administration had announced months ago.
The moment comes amid a flurry of attention Obama administration officials have been showering on Israel ahead of Mr. Romney’s meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday. Over the past two weeks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and the White House’s counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan have visited Israel.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will make a two-day stop in Israel to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, Egypt and Syria’s political unrest, according to officials involved in the planning. Mr. Obama said Friday that the goal of Mr. Panetta’s trip is “to further consult and find additional ways that we can ensure such cooperation at a time when, frankly, the region is experiencing heightened tensions.”
The president’s team has also been reaching out to American Jewish leaders in recent days to shore up support in advance of Mr. Romney’s trip, a White House official said.
Both Messrs. Obama and Romney are vying for Jewish voters in the November election. Mr. Romney accused Mr. Obama of straining U.S.-Israel relations, and Republicans have criticized the president for not visiting Israel during his first term.
Mr. Obama, who has faced criticism even from his supporters over his handling of U.S.-Israel relations, last visited Israel as a candidate during the 2008 election. The White House had considered sending him to Israel at times over the last three years, but aides say there was never a timely moment for him to make the trip. Mr. Obama’s aides have said this week the president will go to Israel if he wins a second term. They’ve also pointed out, amid the GOP criticism, that President George W. Bush did not visit Israel until his second term.