WASHINGTON — Republican presidential hopefuls took turns lambasting President Barack Obama's policy toward Israel on Wednesday, accusing him of being timid in the face of Iran's attempt to build nuclear weapons and allowing a dangerous distance to develop between the U.S. and its long-time ally in the Middle East.
"This president, for every thug and hooligan, for every radical Islamist, he has had nothing but appeasement," said former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in one of harshest criticisms on a day filled with them.
In speeches that resembled political auditions before Jewish activists and donors, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Michele Bachmann promised to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Texas Gov. Rick Perry pledged he would increase military aid to Israel.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a co-front-runner in the polls with Gingrich, said that the president, by his actions, has "emboldened Palestinian hard-liners who now are poised to form a unity government with terrorist Hamas and feel they can bypass Israel at the bargaining table."
Recent controversial remarks about anti-Semitism by Howard Gutman, the U.S., ambassador to Belgium, also figured in the assault on the administration by Republicans seeking the right to oppose Obama in next year's elections.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who was Obama's first envoy to China, suggested the remarks had been cleared in advance by the State Department or perhaps even the White House.
All of the Republicans stressed that Iran must never be permitted to gain a nuclear weapon, raising the possibility of a pre-emptive military strike to prevent it. Israel regards the prospect of a nuclear Iran as a threat to its own existence.
Any criticism of Obama drew applause from the audience, and the White House and its allies were quick to counter the allegations.
"Because they know they can't attract Jewish voters with their domestic policy, Republicans turn to Israel and attempt to make the Jewish state a partisan issue," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat who is chair of the Democratic National Committee.
She said Obama has demonstrated unwavering support for Israel, and during his presidency, U.S. military assistance has reached unprecedented levels.
Mindful of the political stakes, the White House has arranged briefings and a Hanukkah party at the White House for Jewish leaders on Thursday. Obama is expected to speak next week to a conference of the Union for Reform Judaism.
The maneuvering nearly a full year in advance of the presidential election reflects not only the importance of Jewish voters in the political base of any Democratic president, but also the traditionally outsized importance of their financial contributions for any White House hopeful of either major political party.
Jews accounted for a mere 2 percent of the electorate in 2008, and Election Day polling showed Obama drew the support of 78 percent of them. More recently polling by the Gallup organization has placed his approval among Jews at 51 percent.
Given those polling statistics, the eventual Republican presidential contender is highly unlikely to capture a majority of the Jewish vote in 2012. The party's often unspoken, more modest goal is to hold down the level of the president's support in hopes of swinging the outcome in one or more states likely to be most competitive.
Against that backdrop, there was little political percentage in holding back, and the Republicans who took a turn on Wednesday's stage didn't.
Huntsman, Obama's first envoy to China, suggested that Ambassador Gutman's comments about anti-Semitism reflected "ambiguity that the administration has toward Israel."
"I say these aren't speeches that are cooked up at local level within the embassy. They go high up within the State Department, probably within the National Security Council," he said.
In reply to a question, he said he was less concerned about demanding the ambassador's resignation, as other GOP hopefuls have done, than in finding out who had vetted the remarks.
In a speech earlier this month, Gutman identified two types of anti-Semitism, a traditional kind that he said must be combatted, and a newer strain in Europe that results from "tension, hatred and sometimes even violence between some members of Muslim communities or Arab immigrant groups and Jews ... largely born of and reflecting the tension between Israel, the Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab states in the Middle East over the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem.
"It, too, is a serious problem. It, too, must be discussed and solutions explored," he added.
Gingrich, who has risen dramatically in public opinion polls in recent weeks, drew repeated applause when he said he would move the embassy, make Bush administration diplomat John Bolton his secretary of state and ridiculed Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the entire State Department.
"The fact that ... Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would talk about discrimination against women in Israel and then meets with the Saudis, ..." he said, his voice trailing off as laughter erupted in the hall.
Women have far fewer rights than men under Saudi law.
Romney said that "in his inaugural address to the United Nations, the president chastised Israel but said little about the thousands of Hamas rockets raining into its skies. He's publicly proposed that Israel adopt indefensible borders."
Obama has `insulted its prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, and he's been timid and weak in the face of the existential threat of a nuclear Iran," added Romney. He repeated a pledge to make his first foreign trip as president to Israel.
___Associated Press writers Jennifer Agiesta and Brad Klapper contributed to this story.