BOCA RATON, Fla. – Israel was a key focus of the third and final presidential debate Oct. 22 with both candidates expressing solidarity with the United States’ main ally in the Middle East particularly as it faces an increasing threat from a nuclear Iran.
Moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News asked if the candidates would be willing to declare that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States, and President Obama and Mitt Romney both said America will stand with Israel.
“Israel is a true friend. It is our greatest ally in the region,” Obama said at the debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., “and if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel. I’ve made that clear throughout my presidency.”
The president, though, has been criticized in recent months for perhaps weakening America’s relationship with Israel, particularly by not meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he traveled to the United States.
“Working with Israel, we have created the strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in history,” Obama said. “In fact, this week we’ll be carrying out the largest military exercise with Israel in history, this very week.”
Romney, in response to the question, said when he is president, “We will stand with Israel, and if Israel is attacked, we have their back – not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily.”
From left, Romney and Obama
A nuclear-capable Iran, Romney said in reference to Israel’s most vehement opponent in the region, “is unacceptable to America.”
Obama said his administration has organized “the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy.” Iran’s currency has dropped 80 percent, their oil production has plunged to the lowest level in 20 years and “their economy is in shambles,” Obama said.
“As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon,” Obama said, adding that a nuclear Iran is a threat to both America’s and Israel’s national security.
Romney drew attention to what has been dubbed Obama’s “apology tour,” a trip he took to several Middle East nations soon after entering office. Romney contended that Obama criticized the United States during those stops, and nations such as Iran noticed.
“I think they looked at that and saw weakness,” Romney said. “… And I think that when the president said he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel, they noticed that as well.”
Iran also noticed that Obama skipped Israel during his first trip to the Middle East as president, Romney said.
Obama, in response, said that the first time he was a candidate for president he visited a Holocaust museum in Israel “to remind myself the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.”
“I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children’s bedrooms, and I was reminded of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles,” Obama said.
The central question surrounding Middle East conflict, Obama said, is going to be who is viewed as credible to all parties involved.
“They can look at my track record – whether it’s Iran sanctions, whether it’s dealing with counterterrorism, whether it’s supporting democracy, whether it’s supporting women’s rights, whether it’s supporting religious minorities – and they can say that the president of the United States and the United States of America has stood on the right side of history,” Obama said.
Romney said he doesn’t see the United States’ influence growing around the world.
“I see our influence receding, in part because of the failure of the president to deal with our economic challenges at home, in part because of our withdrawal from our commitment to our military and … in part because of the turmoil with Israel,” Romney said. “I mean, the president received a letter from 38 Democrat senators saying the tensions with Israel were a real problem.”
Romney mentioned several times that the Middle East is in tumult, particularly after the Arab Spring. He asked voters to examine the president’s record.
“Are Israel and the Palestinians closer to reaching a peace agreement? No. They haven’t talked in two years,” Romney said. “We have not seen the progress we need to have, and I’m convinced that with strong leadership and an effort to build a strategy based upon helping these nations reject extremism, we can see the kind of peace and prosperity the world demands.”
China also garnered significant attention during the foreign policy debate. While neither candidate mentioned the severe human rights abuses of China’s one-child policy of forced abortions and sterilizations, both candidates spoke of China’s trade violations and said they would like to partner with the communist country if it will, in Obama’s words, “play by the same rules as everybody else.”
“China has an interest that’s very much like ours in one respect, and that is they want a stable world,” Romney said. “They don’t want war. They don’t want to see protectionism. They don’t want to see the world break out into various forms of chaos because they have to manufacture goods and put people to work.
“… And so, we can be a partner with China,” Romney said. “We don’t have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form. We can work with them. We can collaborate with them if they’re willing to be responsible.”
The Republican candidate noted that the United States owes China $1 trillion, and Romney said as president he will label China a currency manipulator because “they’re stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our technology, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods.”
Obama said he believes China can be a partner, “but we’re also sending a very clear signal that America is a Pacific power, that we are going to have a presence there.”
“We’re organizing trade relations with countries other than China so that China starts feeling more pressure about meeting basic international standards,” Obama said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press.)