On cusp of Romney visit, Obama offers new Israeli aid

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On the eve of Republican Mitt Romney’s trip to Jerusalem, President Obama highlighted new military aid for Israel Friday and held a signing ceremony in the Oval Office for a bill expanding U.S. ties with the Middle East ally.

As he signed the bill, Mr. Obama said he hopes “everybody understands how committed all of us are — Republicans and Democrats — as Americans to our friends in making sure that Israel is safe and secure.”

The president said he is releasing $70 million in military aid for Israel, a move that was first announced in May, to expand production of a short-range rocket defense system called the “Iron Dome.” It has been used to stop attacks on Israeli civilians from locations such as Gaza.

“We are standing by our friends in Israel when it comes to these kinds of attacks,” Mr. Obama said.

The Oval Office event appeared to be timed to upstage Mr. Romney’s visit to Israel. The Republican presidential candidate will arrive in Jerusalem on Saturday as part of a trip that also is taking him to England and Poland. Mr. Obama visited Israel while campaigning for the presidency in 2008, but he has not traveled there as president.

Mr. Romney has accused Mr. Obama of being too critical of Israel and not tough enough on Iran. And their debate over Middle East policy could have an impact on Jewish voters in the U.S. in November.

Mr. Obama received 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, but a nationwide Gallup poll last month showed his support slipping to 64 percent. Mr. Romney, who plans to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, received 29 percent support in the survey.

Against that backdrop, Mr. Obama appears increasingly eager to assure voters that his administration is fostering the strongest possible ties with Israel.

“I have made it a top priority for my administration to deepen cooperation with Israel across the whole spectrum of security issues — intelligence, military, technology,” Mr. Obama said at the bill-signing ceremony.

The legislation, which was approved by Congress last week, expands military and civilian cooperation with Israel. It calls for enhanced cooperation by the U.S. on military intelligence, and increased access to weaponry.

Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said the legislation doesn’t address the White House’s “evasiveness” about whether Mr. Obama recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which she said “raises doubt about the president’s commitment” to Israel.

During a news briefing Thursday, White House press secretary Jay Carney refused to say whether the Obama administration recognizes Jerusalem or Tel Aviv as the capital, saying only that “our position hasn’t changed.” The U.S. embassy is located in Tel Aviv; Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital.

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