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Romney to visit Israel, meet with Netanyahu

By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times –

Seeking to polish his foreign policy credentials and build support among Jewish and evangelical voters, Mitt Romney will travel to Israel this summer on a tour that will highlight his warm personal relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and potentially build support among Jewish and evangelical voters and his vow to be a better friend to Israel than the current president.

The Romney campaign confirmed the visit Monday but did not release any other details, including whether it would be a component of his trip to London to attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. The Israel visit, rumored for months, was first reported by The New York Times.

The foreign tour has become a rite of passage for presidential candidates as they try to show that they are prepared to lead on the world stage. Romney’s visit to Israel will mark a rare diversion from his intensive focus on America’s economic plight and his plans to help spur job growth in the U.S. Foreign policy has largely taken a back seat to those issues this year in the matchup between President Barack Obama and the presumptive Republican nominee.

Both Obama and his 2008 rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took extensive trips abroad that summer, providing useful talking points in their fall debates.

Obama, whom the McCain campaign cast as a callow and inexperienced one-term senator, visited Iraq and Afghanistan before engaging in two days of talks about Middle East peace efforts with leaders in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. At that time, Obama promised to work “from the minute I’m sworn into office to try to find some breakthroughs” in Israeli-Palestinian relations, a challenge that has vexed U.S. presidents for decades.

Obama won 78 percent of Jewish voters in 2008, according to exit polls, but Romney’s team sees an opening because of disappointment over the lack of progress on Middle East peace.

The president has had a difficult relationship with Netanyahu, who has known Romney since they worked together at the Boston Consulting Group in the mid-1970s.

Romney told The New York Times in an interview this spring that the two “can almost speak in shorthand” and that they “share common experiences and have a perspective and underpinning which is similar.”

Romney has sharply criticized Obama’s approach toward Israel and the threat of a nuclear Iran, warning at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in March that Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon if Obama were re-elected. He has argued that Obama did not act quickly enough to enforce crippling sanctions on Iran, putting Israel in jeopardy.

Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, accompanied Romney on one of his three previous trips to Israel in 2007. Brooks said the Jewish community is disappointed that Obama has not visited Israel as president even though he has traveled extensively in the Middle East.

Romney’s upcoming trip, Brooks said, “sends a signal to the Iranians and the people of Egypt, of Syria and all the other areas of concern in that region that this is something he takes very seriously.”

Reflecting on his friendship with Netanyahu during the AIPAC speech, Romney said he respected the prime minister’s “intellect and courage.”

“In a Romney administration,” he said, “there will be no gap between our nations or between our leaders.”

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