By Bradley Klapper And Amy Teibel Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Republican presidential hopefuls brandished their pro-Israel credentials, accusing President Barack Obama of weakness with Iran, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talked Mideast strategy with congressional leaders.
Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich paused while competing for votes in the high-stakes Super Tuesday primaries to join the speakers’ lineup at a conference of Israel’s leading pro-Israel lobby. Romney and Gingrich appeared by satellite, while Santorum spoke to the group in person.
Santorum immediately criticized Tuesday’s offer by the United States, European countries, Russia and China to resume talks with Iran on its suspected nuclear weapons program. He termed it “another appeasement, another delay, another opportunity for them to go forward while we talk.”
Romney assailed the administration’s go-slow approach on Iran, saying “hope is not a foreign policy. The only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our resolve, backed by our power and our readiness to use it.”
Ron Paul, whose isolationist foreign policy positions have not endeared him to Israel’s U.S. advocates, wasn’t addressing the conference.
The politicking is taking place at a time of tense debate among Israel, the United States and much of the world over the best strategy for convincing Iran to halt uranium enrichment and come clean on its nuclear activity.
Tehran insists that its program is peaceful and designed for energy purposes, but the U.S. and Israel don’t believe that. The U.S. believes that Iran has the capability to make a nuclear weapon, but has not yet decided to do so.
The head of the U.N. nuclear agency further fed concerns Monday by saying his organization has “serious concerns” that Iran may be hiding secret atomic weapons work. On Tuesday, however, a semi-official Iranian news agency said the country would grant U.N. inspectors access to a military complex where the nuclear agency suspects secret atomic work has been carried out.
Obama has urged pressure and diplomacy, while Netanyahu has emphasized his nation’s right to pre-emptive attack. While their relations appear thawed slightly from last year’s confrontation over the Palestinians and the issue of Israeli settlements, they still don’t see eye-to-eye on the best tactics for their shared goal.
“We have made clear to the regime in Tehran and to our allies in the region: we want diplomacy to work,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the conference Tuesday, describing U.S.-Israel ties as tighter than any time during his three decades in government.
“Military action is the last alternative when all else fails,” Panetta said. “But make no mistake. We will act if we have to.”
The disagreement between the U.S. and Israel concerns “red lines” or benchmarks in Iran’s nuclear development that might demand a military response. Israel believes it has a shorter time frame to act because it doesn’t possess the same military technology as the United States does for attacking Iran’s underground nuclear facilities.
“The red line is now,” Gingrich declared to a standing ovation.
On Capitol Hill, Netanyahu was asked if he had made a decision to strike Iran. The prime minister said he made a decision not to talk about it.
He made the comment at the start of a meeting with a dozen members of the Senate, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and leaders from the Armed Services, Foreign Relations and intelligence commitees. Netanyahu was scheduled to meet with House leaders for lunch.
The GOP’s leading candidates have been hammering Obama on Iran for months, convinced that they’ve discovered a weak spot in his foreign policy record. Obama has countered those attempts by noting that his administration ended the war in Iraq and killed Osama bin Laden.
The Republicans criticize the president for failing to do enough three years ago when protests spread in response to Iran’s fraud-riddled re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They say he has also stood in the way of tougher Iran sanctions, and unfairly put too much emphasis on warning Israel not to attack Iran prematurely.
“We’ve heard a lot of words from the administration. It’s clear message has been to warn Israel to consider the costs of military action against Iran,” Romney said. “Israel does not need public lectures about how to weigh decisions of war and peace. It needs our support.”
This narrative is one the administration is fiercely contesting. The president has gone to great lengths in recent days to stress his pro-Israel positions on issues ranging from security to international diplomacy. He will hold a news conference later Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu had meeting scheduled Tuesday on Capitol Hill, where he could expect a warmer reception to his tough talk on Iran than he got at the White House on Monday.
Obama and Netanyahu tried Monday to present a united front on the nuclear threat emanating from Iran. The U.S. leader reaffirmed that he would resort to military force, if necessary, to keep Iran from getting a bomb and said the U.S. “always has Israel’s back where Israel’s security is concerned.”
But the two men were unable to plaster over differences on how urgently military force might be needed.
For the second time in two days, Netanyahu ignored Obama’s appeal to give diplomacy and sanctions time to percolate, emphasizing Israel’s right to defend itself militarily and suggesting he would not be swayed from going it alone if he thought Israel had to move faster to protect itself.
The very purpose of the Jewish state, he told Obama in a mildly lecturing tone, is “to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny,” he said.
Later in the day, before a record turnout of the pro-Israel lobby, he reasserted Israel’s right to defend itself and said his country had “patiently waited” for diplomacy and sanctions to work.
“None of us can afford to wait much longer,” he told AIPAC. “As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation,” he said to a roaring standing ovation.
Israel feels especially vulnerable to the Iranian nuclear threat because of Tehran’s repeated references to the Jewish state’s destruction and its arsenal of ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the Jewish state.