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PAGE 2A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, DECEMBER 23, 2011 At RJC forum: Republican hopefuls preview their lines of ;tttack By Adam Kredo WASHINGTON (JTA)-- Iran's nuclear program ap- pears to be racing ahead. The Middle East peace process is in shambles. And a series of recent flare-ups have high- lighted ongoing tensions between the Obama admin- istration and elements of the pro-Israel community. Itwas against this backdrop that six Republican candi- dates took the stage Dec. 7 at the Republican Jewish Coali- tion's presidential candidates forum. The hopefuls took turns laying out their lines of attack against President Obama, offering a preview of how Middle East issues might play out in a general election battle. The daylong event attracted hundreds of Republican Jews to the Ronald Reagan Build- ing and International Trade Center here. They heard from the top GOP contenders with the exception ofRep. Ron Paul of Texas, who was not invited. (The RJC's executive director, Matthew Brooks, cited the congressman's "misguided and extreme views" as the reason for his exclusion.) Republican Jewish Coalition Mitt Romneg received a warm reception as he speaks to the Republican Jewish Coalition presidential can- didates" forum. With less than a month to go until the Iowa caucuses, the current leaders of the GOP pack, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, appeared to cement their status as favorites of Jewish Republicans, both receiving warm receptions and ample applause. While the candidates touched on economic issues, most avoided addressing the social issues, such as abor- tion and religion, that tend to push Jewish voters away from Republicans. Instead, their comments focused heavily on foreign policy, with each assailing the Obama administration for its policies toward Israel and Iran, and vowing that they would be better friends to the Jewish state and tougher foes for the Islamic Republic. The 'appeasement' ac- cusation Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum led off the forum by introducing a theme that the front-runners would echo. "The president, for every thug and hooligan, for every radical Islamist, has had nothing but appeasement," Santorum said. Later in the day, Romney accused Obama of an "ap- peasement strategy" toward America's rivals and enemies, while Gingrich said he was "very, very worried about our entire relationship with radical Islam," saying it is based on self-deception and appeasement. In response to a reporter's question, Obama fired back the next day. "Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaida leaders who have been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement," the presi- dent said. Obama and Israel Gingrich and Romney both placed their criticisms of Obama's Israel policies within the context of broader foreign policy critiques. Gingrichsaidthe U.S. needs "a dramatically rethought strategy for the Middle East" and that the country is en- gaged in a"long struggle with radical Islamists." The former House speaker took aim at recent remarks by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who urged Israel to "mend fences" with its neighbors. "This one-sided continuing pressure that says it's always Israel's fault no matter how bad the other side is has to stop," Gingrich said. Romney accused the presi- dent of having "rushed to apologize for America, but he has hesitated to speak up for democracy and freedom." The former Massachusetts governor depicted Israel as a case in point. Obama"has immeasurably Republican Jewish Coalition Newt Gingrich received ample applause speaking to the Republican Jewish Coali- tion presidential candidates" orum. set back the prospect of peace in the Middle East," Romney said, and his administration's policies have only "embold- ened Palestinian hard-liners" who feel that "they can bypass Israel at the bargaining table." Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that Obama "has insisted on previously unheard-of preconditions for Israel, such as an immediate stop to all settlement activity." Perry said he supports "the goal of a Palestinian state, but it should be the Palestinians who meet certain pre-conditions." First, Perry said, a Palestin- ian state must be "directly negotiated between Israeli and the Palestinian leaders." Second, he demanded "Pales- tinian recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state." Finally, he said Palestinian leaders must "renounce the terrorist activities of Hamas." Perry's pre-conditions closely resemble positions previously articulated by Obama. The president has condemned Palestinian ef- forts to achieve statehood outside of the context of negotiations, called previous Hamas-Fatah unity efforts "an enormous obstacle to peace" and said Israel should be "a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people." The Iranian threat The candidates talked tough on Iran--and had some tough words for the Obama administration. "On Iran, the only rational long-term policy is regime RJC on page 19A Netanyahu shoring up power at home amid tensions with allies abroad By Matthew Wagner JERUSALEM (JTA)--He may be a lightning rod for criticism abroad, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is consolidating power at home. On Dec. 5, Netanyahu an- nounced that elections for leadership of his Likud Party would be held Jan. 31. The decision came as something of a surprise; primaries in Israel were expected to be held closer to the next general elections, which are set for October 2013. Leading Likud ministers-- except for Regional Develop- ment Minister Silvan Shalom, who had harbored unrealistic hopes of challenging Netan- yahu--strongly supported Netanyahu's decision, timed to take advantage of the prime minister's relative popularity. "A strong prime minister makes for a strong Likud," said Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar. In an opinion poll based on 505 respondents published in the Israeli daily Haaretz at the beginning of December, Ne- tanyahu's approval rate stood at 49 percent. It has bounced back from 32 percent in a July Haaretz poll, when demon- strations were raging against socioeconomic inequalities and the cost of living. According to the December poll, if parliamentary elections had been held in November, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, the second-largest coalition party, each would have gained two Knesset seats. The poll predicted that leading op- position parties Kadima and Labor would not be able to seriously challenge the right's dominance. Indeed, Netanyahu and his coalition--buoyed by a solid base of haredi Orthodox Jews, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, religious Zionists and secular right- wingers--enjoy impressive political stability. However, forall his strength at home, Netanyahu has had rocky relations with some of Israel's allies, including the United States. Earlier this month, Secre- tary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hill- ary Rodham Clinton made separate remarks that were taken by some as implicit rebukes of the current Israeli government, though others have suggested that their remarks were not intended in that spirit. In an address to the Saban Forum in Washington, Pa- netta suggested that Israel needed to "mend fences" with its neighbors. And in response to a question aboutwhat Israel should do to advance peace, Panetta said, "just get to the damn table." Responding to a question in an off-the-record session at the same conference, Clinton reportedly expressed some concerns over the state of Israeli democracy. She was said to have criticized gender- segregated buses serving the haredi Orthodox community and a proposed Knesset mea- sure aimed at constricting left-wing NGOs. After the comments by Clin- ton and Panetta were made public, influential Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit accused Netanyahu of sacrificing the support of the democratic West--which he said over the years has supported Israel politically, militarily and eco- nomically-to maintain his base of "nationalists," "nation- al-religious" and "haredim." Shavit and other centrists would have preferred to see Netanyahu form a coalition with Kadima and Labor fol- lowing the 2009 elections. If he had, some argue, Israel may have made more headway in peace talks with the Palestin- ians and been on better terms with the Obama administra- tion and with Western Euro- pean countries. But if Netanyahu had formed such a coalition, it is not at all clear that his position within the Likud would have been as strong as it is today. Nor is it clear that Netanyahu would have enjoyed the sort of political stability he has with his current partners. The apparent tensions between Jerusalem and Wash- ington have fueled specula- tion that Netanyahu's call for an early leadership vote was connected in part to the U.S. presidential elections in November. Some commen- tators have speculated that Netanyahu fears a victory by President Obama. According to the theo- ry, Netanyahu is afraid that Obama in a second term will renew pressure on Israel to freeze building in the West Bank, dismantle outposts or take other proactive steps to jump-start negotiations-- steps that, if implemented, could endanger the stability of Netanyahu's coalition and turn hawkish Likud Knesset members against the prime minister. Some have suggested that a second Obama administration may even attempt to send out signals of dissatisfaction with the Netanyahu government ahead of the 2013 Israeli elec- tions in an attempt to influ- ence the outcome. There are precedents: Bill Clinton, fed up with Netan- yahu's settlement policies, used the tactic to help Ehud Barak defeat Netanyahu in the 1999 Israeli elections, and George H.W. Bush, an- gered by Yitzhak Shamir's intransigence on peace talks with the Palestinians, did the same in 1992 to help Yitzhak Rabin to victory, according to Zalman Shoval, who was Israel's ambassador to the U.S. in Likud-led governments during both periods and now heads the prime minister's advisory forum on U.S.-Israel relations. Holding the Likud leader- ship race in January would enable Netanyahu to advance the general elections to as early as July 2012 if he sees Obama doing well in the polls, though the scenario seems far-fetched. Also, moving up the vote would depend on Netanyahu's ability to muster a majority in the Knesset for early elections--no easy task. Nevertheless, such specula- tion reflects the perception in Israel that relations between the Israeli government and the Obama administration have deteriorated. Still Shoval, who recently returned to Israel from a trip to the U.S., where he met with senior White House officials, said the recent comments by Panetta and Clinton should be taken "with a grain of salt." Shoval said he was told that the comments were made "off the cuff." "I've never felt such strong support for Israel in Washing- ton," he added. Shoval also dismissed the idea put forward by Shavit that the Netanyahu government is moving away from the values of Western democracies. "Unlike in the U.S., we have no death penalty for crimi- nals, openly gay soldiers have long enjoyed full rights in the IDF, we have no problem Marc Israel/Flash 90/JTA Israeli Pro'me Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking Dec. 12 at the Israeli Business Conference in Tel Aviv, is calling for early Likud Party elections. with abortions and there is no political intervention in the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court," Shoval said. Yisrael Beiteinu's David Rotem, chairman of the Knes- set Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, also dis- missed claims that Israel was drifting away from the West. "Israel has its own form of democracy, a Jewish de- mocracy," Rotem said. "And this Jewish democracy is no different from Western democ- racies-it defends itself when it is attacked." Though he is widely seen as hawkish, Netanyahu has taken steps to position Likud as a more centrist party. He called the snap leadership race to co- incidewith apreviously planned Likud Central Committee elec- tion. Doing so is expected to increase the chances of a large turnout from about 100,000 eligible party members, since the last Central Committee election was last held a decade ago and many will not want to miss the chance to choose a new committee. A large turnout not only will give more legitimacy to Netan- yahu's victory, it also might help him to further sideline far-right party activist Moshe Feiglin, Netanyahu's only competition, who garnered 23 percent of the vote in the last primaries, held in 2007, thanks in part to the mobilization of a highly motivated minority against a more complacent pro-Netanyahu camp. Netanyahu also has taken steps to partially roll back af- firmative action measures that have encouraged West Bank settlers to participate in the Likud's Central Committee by giving them proportionally more representatives relative to their size. While solid, the stability of the current Israeli govern- ment is not unshakable.Apos- sible corruption indictment against Foreign Minister Avig- dor Lieberman, upon whom Yisrael Beiteinu's other largely unknown Knesset members rely for political currency, could devastate the party. The Sephardic haredi Or- thodox party Shas, another key coalition partner, would be vulnerable in the event of a number of possible develop- ments, including the sudden death of its spiritual leader, nonagenarian Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, or a challenge from its charismatic former political leader Aryeh Deri. These potential dangers to his coalition's stability, which might lead to early elections, may have provided additional impetus for Netanyahu to consolidate his power now.