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WASHINGTON, DC—Three Republican presidential candidates addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference Tuesday morning, but only two took part in question-and-answer sessions following their comments.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who was the only candidate to appear in person at the conference amid 10 primaries and causes on “Super Tuesday,” did not have a question-and-answer period following his remarks. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who both spoke via satellite, answered questions after their comments—but not without a moment of confusion.
Romney immediately began a question-and-answer period with a four-person panel following his speech. Gingrich publicly asked for the question-and-answer period to begin after making his brief remarks, but was initially told by an AIPAC board member on stage that he would not be able to answer questions. Gingrich was then asked to continue speaking, and was eventually interrupted for two questions from the same board member.
It is unclear whether Santorum was not offered the chance to answer questions by AIPAC or turned down that opportunity himself, and why Gingrich was at first told he would not be given a question-and-answer period. AIPAC’s internal and external press liaisons both did not respond to requests for comment.
“I can’t explain AIPAC’s decisions,” analyst Richard Baehr, chief political correspondent for American Thinker, wrote in an email to JointMedia News Service. “[AIPAC] is generally very careful about being ‘fair and balanced’—one Democratic elected official for every Republican elected official who speaks at [the] policy conference. [On Tuesday], they stuck [Democratic Michigan Sentor] Carl Levin and [Secretary of Defense] Leon Panetta between the three Republican candidates for president.”
Baehr called it a “smart move by Santorum to be there.” However, he added that Santorum’s campaign is “on the ropes, and I do not think [appearing in person at AIPAC] will change things.”
Santorum calls for ‘clear ultimatum’ to Iran
Following reports that he was among three Republican candidates who would address the policy conference via satellite, Santorum instead showed up in person despite a busy “Super Tuesday.”
“I wanted to come off the campaign trail to come here,” Santorum told the crowd.
Speaking on what he called the “grave concern I have about the security of our country and the leadership of our country in the face of an existential threat to not just the state of Israel,” but an “existential threat to freedom-loving people around the world,” Santorum said the U.S. needs to “set forth a clear ultimatum to the Iranian government.”
“We need to say to the Iranian government: the time is now, you will stop your nuclear production now, you will open up your facilities to inspectors from the United States and other countries, so we can certify that [nuclear] efforts are being dismantled,” he said. "Now.”
Santorum recounted how he was among the first legislators to warn Americans about the Iranian nuclear threat back in 2006. He said he would ask, “How many people have ever heard of the name Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?” and that nobody would know.
He also reaffirmed the strength of his policy on Iran. “If they do not tear down those [nuclear] facilities, we will tear them down ourselves,” he said.
Chris DeSanctis, an adjunct professor in the Department of Government and Politics at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, wrote in an email to JointMedia News Service that, “By leaving the campaign trail to deliver a speech in person to [the AIPAC conference] in Washington, Rick Santorum showed the nation, and specifically the Jewish community, just how important the security of Israel is to him.”
Romney’s talk goes beyond Iran
In contrast with the rest of the conference, Romney spoke not solely of Iran, but of other issues facing Israel and the United States.
The Republican candidate began by criticizing Obama’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. “Palestinians are convinced they can do better with America than at the bargaining table [with Israel],” he said.
“As president, I’ll treat our friends and allies like our friends and allies.”
Romney also criticized the Obama administration for being too soft on Iran. It took too long for Obama to impose crippling sanctions, he said, allowing Iran to gain “three invaluable years.”
“I will bring procrastination toward Iran to an end,” Romney said.
The former governor stated that if elected, his administration would [in addition to imposing sanctions] station multiple aircraft carriers “next door” to Iran, put in place a diplomatic isolation program that would ensure that “[Iran’s] diplomats are rejected and despised throughout the world,” sufficiently communicate the United States’ military strength, and empower Syrian rebel forces and leadership.
Romney added that in contrast with Obama, who wants to “shrink our navy, and shrink our military,” he would “expand every one of them.”
A strong American military, the governor said, is “the best ally peace has ever known.”
Romney used his question-and-answer session to elaborate on his plans for a policy towards Iran, as well as his view of the peace process.
“We stand with Israel,” he said. “We don’t insist that Israel make unilateral concessions; those have not worked in the past and they are not the way to go.”
Gingrich vouches for American embassy in Jerusalem
The audience greeted Gingrich’s appearance with a standing ovation, and a generally more excited response than was offered the other two candidates. The Republican candidate delivered a short, yet firm speech.
“On the first day that I’m president, I will sign the executive order to move the American embassy to Jerusalem,” Gingrich opened. The American embassy, currently located in Tel Aviv, has been shrouded in controversy as it reflects the United States’ reluctance to acknowledge Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.
“On that first day I will initiate an energy policy… to produce enough American energy so that no future American president will bow to a Saudi king,” the former speaker continued.
He also spoke of the Iranian nuclear threat, ensuring that if elected, he would “provide all available intelligence to the Israeli government, and ensure that they had the equipment necessary” to defend themselves. Gingrich also added that he would “require no advanced notice” if Israel decided to strike.
During the seemingly hastily organized question and answer session, Gingrich said that if elected, the U.S. “would not keep talking while Iranians keep building,” stating that Iran is already crossing the line by continuing its development of nuclear weapons.
“The red line is not the morning the bomb goes off, the morning our intelligence community tells us they’ve failed once again…the red line is now.”