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Obama Pre-Empts Romney's Israel Visit With Security Aid Bill Signing

President Obama is flanked Friday by congressional sponsors and officials with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at a signing ceremony in Washington, D.C., for legislation increasing U.S. security aid to Israel.
Susan Walsh
President Obama is flanked Friday by congressional sponsors and officials with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at a signing ceremony in Washington, D.C., for legislation increasing U.S. security aid to Israel.

It may have just been a coincidence that on the eve of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's visit to Israel, President Obama signed legislation that increases U.S. military and security aid to the Jewish state.

But the timing was nonetheless fortuitous for the president, and showed once again the benefits of incumbency in an election year.

Obama's Friday signing of the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Act, which increases assistance to Israel to defend against missiles and rockets from Iranian-backed extremist groups, gave the president a chance to somewhat pre-empt Romney's trip.

Romney's visit to Israel this weekend is meant to underscore the Republican's campaign message, aimed at Jewish and evangelical Christians voters, that he would be a more loyal ally to Israel than Obama has been.

The legislation signed Friday by Obama passed with unusual speed and bipartisanship in a Congress best known for partisan gridlock. And it gave the president and his Democratic allies something with which to counter anti-Obama efforts by billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and the Republican Jewish Coalition — efforts reported this week by The New York Times.

Adelson and the RJC have begun a campaign to attract to Romney enough Jewish voters disaffected with Obama — especially in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania — so Republicans can retake the White House.

The effort is meant to cut into Obama's sizable advantage among Jewish voters. A recent Gallup poll indicated that Obama leads Romney among Jewish voters, 68 percent to 25 percent. That's about the level of support Obama received in 2008 from Jewish voters, according to exit polls.

But, unlike in 2008, Obama now has a foreign policy record, specifically when it comes to Israel, that Republicans can attack. And they have, bashing Obama for saying that the starting point in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a two-state solution should be 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps. Conservatives in the U.S. and Israel reject such language, because it would mean giving up some major Israeli settlements.

That record, as well as Obama's notoriously cool relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has left the president vulnerable to doubts in some minds about his support for Israel.

Thus, Obama sought to strengthen his argument that his administration has continued the United States' unbroken ties with Israel.

At the bill-signing ceremony Friday, Obama even claimed that the level of U.S.-Israeli cooperation during his presidency has been "unprecedented":

"As many of you know, I have made it a top priority for my administration to deepen cooperation with Israel across the whole spectrum of security issues — intelligence, military, technology. And, in many ways, what this legislation does is bring together all the outstanding cooperation that we have seen, really, at an unprecedented level between our two countries that underscore our unshakeable commitment to Israel security."

Obama also announced $70 million in additional spending (which at one point the president incorrectly stated as "$70 billion") for the Iron Dome program.

"This is a program that has been critical in terms of providing security and safety for the Israeli families. It is a program that has been tested and has prevented missile strikes inside of Israel. And it is testimony to the leadership of the folks sitting here that we're going to be able to lock in that fund to assure that that program continues and that we are standing by our friends in Israel when it comes to these kinds of attacks."

And in case anyone failed to get the point that Obama wants to be viewed as being foursquare behind Israel, the White House invited leaders, past and present, of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to the Oval Office signing.

AIPAC has long been perceived as the U.S. group that allows no daylight between itself and the Israeli government's positions regarding that nation's security. Thus, the presence of AIPAC Chairman Lee Rosenberg and former Chairman Howard Friedman was meant to serve as Obama's iron dome against critics, including Romney, that the president has failed Israel.

In a response to Friday's bill signing, Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg raised the issue of Jerusalem:

"Gov. Romney has long called for enhancing security cooperation with Israel and is happy to see that steps are being taken in that direction. Unfortunately this bill does nothing to address yesterday's evasiveness from the White House on whether President Obama recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which raised doubt about the President's commitment to our closest ally in the region."

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama described Jerusalem as Israel's capital. But as president he has continued the stance of Republican and Democratic administrations before him and kept the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv while calling for Jerusalem's ultimate fate to be decided as part of negotiations that lead to two states.

Henneberg's mention of "evasiveness" had everything to do with the following lively exchange between White House press secretary Jay Carney and two members of the White House press corps at Thursday's briefing:

REPORTER: What city does this administration consider to be the capital of Israel — Jerusalem or Tel Aviv?*

CARNEY: I haven't had that question in a while. Our position has not changed, Connie.

REPORTER: What is the position? What's the capital?

CARNEY: You know our position.

REPORTER: I don't.

SECOND REPORTER: No, no, she doesn't know. She doesn't know. That's why she asked.

CARNEY: She does know --

REPORTER: I don't.

SECOND REPORTER: She does not know. She just said she doesn't know. I don't know.

MR. CARNEY: We have long — Les, I call on Christi. Go ahead. ...

And then, later in the briefing:

SECOND REPORTER: Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?

CARNEY: You know the answer. Yes.

SECOND REPORTER: No, I don't know the answer. We don't know the answer. Could you just give us an answer? What do you recognize — what does

CARNEY: Our position hasn't changed ...

The White House press office later added the following headnote to the official transcript of the briefing (italics in the original):

*The status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. We continue to work with the parties to resolve this issue and others in a way that is just and fair, and respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.