Wednesday, January 24, 2007

HERZLIYA, Israel — Presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney, John Edwards and John McCain all detoured through Israel on the way to New Hampshire this week, seemingly competing to see who could be strongest in defense of the Jewish state.

Speaking in person or by video link Monday and yesterday, the politicians spelled out tough measures they said were necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also addressed the conference.

Stressing the strong U.S.-Israeli relationship at the Herzliya security conference outside Tel Aviv, the Americans called for the United States to step up sanctions on Iran and leave the possibility of a military attack “on the table.”

In less than a decade, the annual conference has become a mecca for Middle East specialists, partly because Ariel Sharon used it to outline his plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip when he was prime minister.

For American politicians, the gathering provides an opportunity to float policy positions and reach out to Jewish voters in the United States.

“This forum has become the Davos for Middle East wonks,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who also was scheduled to speak. The Swiss town of Davos plays host to World Economic Forum meetings.

“During the Cold War, the Middle East was a backwater of American policy. But with the end of the Cold War, the Middle East has become the center of American policy. [The conference is] a legitimate forum for them to express their views on a region that’s important.”

Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and potential contender for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, called for economic sanctions on Iran that are “at least as severe” as those imposed on South Africa during its apartheid era.

He compared the challenge posed by Iran and militant Islam to the great threats of the 20th century — fascism and totalitarian communism. He also recommended that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be brought before an international court and be tried for threatening genocide.

“It is time for the world to plainly speak these three truths,” said Mr. Romney, the only one of the four to attend in person. “One, Iran must be stopped. Two, Iran can be stopped. And three, Iran will be stopped.”

Mr. Gingrich, speaking by satellite video link, said Israel faced the most serious threat to its existence since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. But many in Israel and the United States do not fully appreciate the nature, size and scope of the Iranian threat, he said.

“I have two grandchildren,” said Mr. Gingrich, who has declared that he would run for president next year only as a last resort, “and I think there is a greater danger of them dying in an action than I faced during the Cold War.”

Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican and a presidential front-runner, said he supported exploring a strengthening of ties between Israel and NATO as a means of easing Israel’s insecurity.

“A friendly democracy under siege should be closer partners to the world’s most successful security alliance,” he said via satellite link. “American support for Israel should intensify. The enemies are too numerous, the margin of error too small, and shared values too great.”

Mr. Edwards, of North Carolina, the only Democratic presidential candidate to address the conference, similarly called to toughen sanctions on Iran and hold out the threat of military force, but he broke with the others by suggesting that Washington open a dialogue with Iran.

“I support being tough, but I think it’s a mistake strategically and ideologically not to engage them on this issue,” he said. “America should engage directly on this issue.”

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