WASHINGTON — Courting Jewish voters, Republican presidential candidates tore into President Barack Obama's Middle East policies Wednesday, accusing him of not coming down hard enough on Iran's nuclear aspirations and endangering Israel, a longtime U.S. ally.
Speaking before the Republican Jewish Coalition, six GOP presidential hopefuls took the stage to blast Obama and pledge support for Israel. Several called on the president to fire his ambassador to Belgium and said they'd move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney accused Obama of being "timid and weak" in the face of Iran's apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons capability and of insulting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He suggested that Obama's actions have "emboldened Palestinian hard-liners, and said the president had "immeasurably set back the prospect of peace in the Middle East."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose recent rise in the polls has threatened Romney, earned thunderous applause when he suggested that he'd ask George W. Bush's hawkish former U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, to serve as his secretary of state.
Gingrich said the Obama administration's stance — as he defined it — that "it's always Israel's fault, no matter how bad the other side is, has to stop."
Gingrich pledged that he'd fund every dissident group in Iran and work to "covertly sabotage" the country's fuel supply to cripple it.
Several speakers called on Obama to fire — or condemn — his ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, who recently suggested that some anti-Jewish sentiment among Europe's Muslims can be attributed to tension between Israelis and Palestinians. The White House has condemned all forms of anti-Semitism.
"The president should fire him immediately for those irresponsible remarks," Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann said.
Obama's former ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, suggested that the comments by Gutman, who's Jewish, mirror the "continued ambiguity" that the administration has toward Israel.
"I say these aren't speeches that are cooked up at local level within the embassy," Huntsman said. "They go high up within the State Department, probably within the National Security Council."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who came under criticism from some Jewish groups for saying during a GOP debate last month that he'd "zero out" foreign aid to every country, said he'd stick to that stance — except when it came to Israel.
"Strategic defensive aid, strategic aid in all forms under a Perry administration will increase to Israel," Perry said to polite applause.
The tough talk came as Republicans think they have an opening to poach traditionally Democratic-leaning Jewish voters from Obama, whom they say some Jewish voters view warily because of his tough early stance against Israel's building of settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank.
Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz called the talk a "lot of bluster from a bunch of candidates who are quick to support wiping out Israel's foreign aid budget when talking in one forum, only to say something different when talking to the Republican Jewish Coalition."
She said that U.S. military assistance to Israel had been raised to unprecedented levels, including the then-largest-ever security assistance funding outlay — $2.7 billion — in 2010 and even more, $3 billion, for 2011.
Obama said at a fundraiser last week in New York that the U.S. had no ally more important than Israel and his administration had been "consistent in insisting that we don't compromise when it comes to Israel's security.
"I try not to pat myself too much on the back, but this administration has done more in terms of the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration. And that's not just our opinion, that's the opinion of the Israeli government."
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum accused Obama of turning a "blind eye" to the threat of radical Islam and charged that he didn't support democratic revolution in Iran in 2009.
"This president, for every thug and hooligan, for every radical Islamist, he has had nothing but appeasement," Santorum said.
Texas Republican U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, who's polling higher than Bachmann, Santorum and Huntsman are, wasn't invited to the forum. The coalition says it considers Paul, who's criticized U.S. aid to Israel, "far out of the mainstream."
In debates, Paul has argued that the U.S. should be less involved in Israel. "I think they're quite capable of taking care of themselves," he said last month.
Several in the crowd said they were tracking Gingrich's rise with interest.
"The electorate this year wants someone loud, direct and cocky," said Larry Levine, 54, a businessman from Columbus, Ohio, who wore an "Obama, Oh Vey!" pin on his shirt. "I'd vote for an amoeba over Obama, but we want someone with verve."
Northwestern University law professor Eugene Kontorovich, a Romney supporter, was impressed nevertheless with Gingrich, who he said "hit more highs."
"It's all about Israel," Kontorovich said, noting that Romney's promise to make Israel his first foreign stop as president was a good move, in contrast to Obama, who hasn't been to Israel as president.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY