For much of the last year, the Republican candidates for president have hammered President Obama’s handling of the Middle East peace effort, hoping to drive a wedge between Mr. Obama and Jewish voters and other supporters of Israel over the issue of Israel’s security.
Now, the rising tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions — and the growing possibility of an Israeli-led strike on Iran’s facilities that could come as early as this summer — has once again brought the issue of Israel to the forefront of the presidential campaign.
The White House announced on Monday that Mr. Obama would host Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel at the White House early next month. The meeting comes amid reports that the United States is cautioning Israel against launching a strike.
A statement from the White House said the visit was “part of the continuous and intensive dialogue between the United States and Israel and reflects our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.” Mr. Obama dispatched his national security adviser to Israel over the last several days to discuss the Iranian situation and other issues.
But Mr. Obama’s Republican rivals are likely to try to use the White House meeting on March 5 — which comes on the day before the Super Tuesday primaries — to renew their attacks on an administration they say has not done enough to help protect and support Israel.
Mitt Romney has called Iran’s nuclear ambitions Mr. Obama’s “greatest failing” and said during a debate in New Hampshire last month that the president “did not do what was necessary to get Iran to be dissuaded from their nuclear folly.”
Rick Santorum has accused Mr. Obama of acting “naively and cavalierly” about Iran’s potential for nuclear weapons, saying on his Web site that “if Barack Obama has taught us anything, it’s that experience matters.”
And Newt Gingrich said at a stop in California recently that he supported Israel’s right to undertake “an operation designed to dramatically slow down or disrupt the Iranian nuclear system.”
Those pledges of support for Israel and criticisms of the president on his handling of Iran are likely to become ever more strident as the Republican candidates look for ways to criticize Mr. Obama’s foreign policy. The president’s support for the war in Afghanistan, his carefully managed withdrawal of troops in Iraq and his successful killing of dozens of terrorists — including Osama bin Laden — have robbed Republicans of some of their usual critiques.
Now, Republicans appear eager to use the administration’s wariness of an Israeli strike on Iran to paint Mr. Obama as a reluctant supporter of Israel’s security. Mr. Obama won more than three-quarters of the Jewish vote in 2008, according to exit polls, but Republicans hope that attacks on his support of Israel could both appeal to Jewish voters — a small but important constituency, especially in some swing states, like Florida — and to other voters who are committed to protecting Israel.
In an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal last year, Mr. Romney accused the president of appeasing the Iranians and said that “we’ve been offered a case study in botched diplomacy and its potentially horrific costs.”
Advisers to Mr. Obama strongly reject the criticism. They note that the administration has sent Israel more money for its security than ever before. And they say the United States has led a robust effort to pressure and isolate Iran with sanctions imposed by a broad coalition of countries.
The president’s political advisers say they expect attacks from Republicans to intensify, especially after the party nominates a challenger to Mr. Obama. But they say efforts by Republicans to play partisan games with the issue of Israel’s security is dangerous given the delicate circumstances surrounding the Iranian nuclear program.
“They do it for partisan political purposes. but the unfortunate consequence may be that Iran mistakenly believes the Republican attacks and concludes that Israel is more vulnerable than it actually is,” said Robert Wexler, a former Democratic member of Congress from Florida and the president of the Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.
White House officials have not been shy about saying publicly what they are warning privately — that an attack by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a difficult and dangerous endeavor. In an interview on CNN over the weekend, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, said that an Israeli strike would be “destabilizing.”
But the administration rejects the idea that their military caution is a reflection of a lack of commitment to Israel’s security or its future.
“I will say that we have closer military and intelligence consultation between our two countries than we’ve ever had,” Mr. Obama said during an interview with NBC before the Superbowl this month. “We are going to be sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this — hopefully diplomatically.”
Mr. Wexler said the president had been far more aggressive toward Iran than previous administrations and that the sanctions by the United States, the European Union and other allies were having a major effect on the country, including a devaluing of the Iranian currency by half.
“The partisan criticism that the Republicans offer is bankrupt,” Mr. Wexler said. “I almost laughed when the president’s critics tried to suggest a degree of weakness.”
Mr. Obama’s upcoming meeting with Mr. Netanyahu will provide a new opportunity to assess the relationship between the two men, which has been rocky in the past. They clashed over the issue of Israeli settlement construction during one of their first meetings. And Mr. Obama was caught telling the French president: “I have to deal with him even more often than you.”
Still, Mr. Netanyahu has publicly praised Mr. Obama, and Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, said in December that “the unshakable bonds between Israel and America and their respective defense establishments under the guiding hand of President Barack Obama are stronger and deeper than ever.”
That kind of praise is unlikely to be enough to satisfy Republicans on the campaign trail or on Capitol Hill.
The subject of Iran’s nuclear program, and Israel’s plans, is sure to come up at the Republican debate in Arizona on Wednesday, and the candidates have shown little hesitance at turning the potential crisis into a campaign issue.
Less clear is whether Jewish voters in the United States, who also have concerns that go beyond Israel’s security situation, will respond to the Republican critiques, or will be convinced that the president’s actions toward Israel are the appropriate ones.
It’s a debate that’s likely to intensify in the coming weeks.