JERUSALEM — Mitt Romney sought to project a more muscular tone on foreign policy than President Obama on Sunday, emphatically calling Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and declaring Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons “our highest national security priority.”
As the sun set on Jerusalem’s Old City and American and Israeli flags whipped in the wind, Romney stressed the importance of the US-Israeli relationship and pledged to always stand with Israel. “We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself,” Romney said. “And that it is right for America to stand with you.”
Romney’s Sunday speech came in the midst of a six-day trip abroad, as the former Massachusetts governor, a relative novice on the international stage, stood in one of the world’s most volatile areas of conflict.
At one point Romney made a point of calling Jerusalem “the capital of Israel,” a line that won loud applause. Decades of American policy makers have avoided making that statement, because Palestinians also envision the city as the future capital of their hoped-for state.
Romney did not say whether he would move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Through several administrations, the United States has kept its embassy in Tel Aviv, pending final resolution of Jerusalem’s status in negotiations with the Palestinians.
Many of Romney’s biggest donors — including Sheldon Adelson, currently the biggest donor in Republican politics — joined him for the Israel portion of the trip.
When Romney went to the Western Wall, donors accompanied him. When he delivered his speech, several rows in the front were reserved for donors. He is planning to spend time with them Monday morning at a $50,000-per-person fund-raiser. It was organized with the help of Manhattan lawyer J. Philip Rosen, who owns a house in Jerusalem.
Adelson, a casino magnate and Dorchester native, was front and center, seated behind Romney’s wife, Ann, for Sunday’s speech.
“It was a great speech,” Adelson said after it was over. “Loved it.”
Romney noted that Syria is run by a “dictator in Damascus, no friend to Israel and no friend to America,” and that Lebanon “is under the growing and dangerous influence of Hezbollah.”
“After a year of upheaval and unrest, Egypt now has an Islamist president, chosen in a democratic election,” he said. “Hopefully, this new government understands that one true measure of democracy is how those elected by the majority respect the rights of those in the minority.”
But he saved his harshest criticism for Iran, saying the Islamist country cannot be trusted on nuclear weapons, which arms experts say it is seeking to develop.
“We have a solemn duty and a moral imperative to deny Iran’s leaders the means to follow through on their malevolent intentions,” Romney said. “We should stand with all who would join our effort to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran — and that includes Iranian dissidents. Don’t erase from your memory the scenes from three years ago, when that regime brought to death its own people as they rose up.”
Said Romney: “We must not delude ourselves into thinking that containment is an option.”
But his words did not go as far as the position on Iran articulated earlier in the day by a senior foreign policy adviser to Romney, who said the candidate would support Israel if it made a unilateral military strike on Iran.
“If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision,” Dan Senor, an adviser who helped organize the trip to Israel, told reporters in a morning briefing.
Romney spent much of Sunday morning in meetings that included discussion of Iran’s nuclear threat.
“We have to be honest and say that all the sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota,” Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said before meeting with Romney. “And that’s why I believe that we need a strong and credible military threat coupled with the sanctions to have a chance of changing that situation.”
Netanyahu and Romney have a relationship that extends back to the 1970s, when they both worked at Boston Consulting Group, after Romney obtained graduate degrees from Harvard and Netanyahu from MIT.
“We’ve known each other for many decades, since you were a young man, but for some reason, you still look young.” Netanyahu said, as Romney laughed. “You’ve been a personal friend of mine and a strong friend of the state of Israel, and that’s why it’s a pleasure to welcome you here.”
Romney and his wife later made a trip to the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites for the Jewish faith. Romney was escorted to the wall by the chief rabbi as a crowd formed, snapping pictures with cellphones, moving to shake his hand, and shouting at him. He later inserted a prayer note into a crack between the stones. The content was not revealed.
“Beat Obama, governor! Beat Obama,” one man shouted. “Get rid of Obamacare!” another added.
The group that accompanied Romney to the wall included some of his donors, who are in town for the high-dollar fund-raiser on Monday morning.
The campaign announced on Sunday that reporters would be allowed to cover Romney’s remarks at the fund-raiser, reversing a previous decision.
In addition to Adelson, donors who joined Romney included New York Jets owner Woody Johnson; Detroit developer John Rakolta, who aided Romney in his last presidential bid; Cheryl Halpern, a New Jersey Republican; hedge fund founder Paul Singer; L.E. Simmons of Texas, owner of a private-equity firm; Eric Tanenblatt, a Romney fund-raiser in Atlanta; and John Miller, chief executive of the National Beef Packing Company.
Romney’s trip to Israel, which lasts only about 36 hours, comes after an unsteady start to his trip in London, where a disparaging comment he made about the city’s Olympic Games attracted rebukes from British newspapers and politicians.
“What an experience that was,” he told Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of his trip to London. “An entertaining and delightful opening ceremonies. Wasn’t it spectacular? It really was. And the march of nations. There were many participants. And they sent women from every country.”
Romney has ruffled some feathers in Jerusalem as well. His campaign initially scheduled a meeting with leaders of the Labor Party, which until two weeks ago was the primary opposition party. But the campaign canceled the meeting about 90 minutes before it was to occur.
“We were disappointed because we wanted Governor Romney to hear our position,” Isaac Herzog, a leader of the Labor Party, who met Romney during his 2007 trip to Israel, said in an interview.