TEL AVIV // American presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel yesterday and said the United States had "a solemn duty and a moral imperative" to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.
With one eye on the election campaign in the United States, where he is expected to be the Republican nominee, and with the Old City as the backdrop, Mr Romney told an audience in Jerusalem: "Make no mistake, the ayatollahs in Tehran are testing our moral defences. They want to know who will object, and who will look the other way.
"My message to the people of Israel and the leaders of Iran is one and the same: I will not look away, and neither will my country."
However, Mr Romney backtracked on an earlier pledge by an aide that he would support any military decision by Israel to attack Iran over its nuclear programme. Instead, he said merely: "We recognise Israel's right to defend itself.
With the US presidential race entering its final 100 days, both Mr Romney and Barack Obama aim to appeal to Jewish voters and evangelicals in the US by showing a similar aggressive stance to Israel's on Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has urged tougher action and is reported to be endorsing an Israeli military attack on Tehran.
Iranian officials have insisted their nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.
Mr Romney's declaration that the disputed city of Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, made in a TV interview earlier in the day, risks angering the Palestinians and Muslim countries. While Israel views Jerusalem as its capital, the US and other nations maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv.
While Christian evangelicals are a key part of the Republican base, Jewish voters - historically a Democratic bloc - could also prove critical in the election in hotly contested states such as Florida. There they make up just 3.4 per cent of the electorate but typically turn out in highly disproportionate numbers. Also, donations by Jews and Jewish or pro-Israel groups have accounted for more than half of Democratic campaign funds.
Mr Romney may be aiming to capitalise on a possible erosion of support for Mr Obama among Jews, which stood at 78 per cent in the 2008 election. On Friday, a Gallup poll said 68 per cent of Jewish voters favoured Mr Obama while 25 per cent backed Mr Romney.
On Iran, Dan Senor, the senior national security aide to Mr Romney, told reporters yesterday: "If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing the capability, the governor would respect that decision."
Mr Romney's visit came as Haaretz newspaper reported that Tom Donilon, the US national security adviser, briefed Mr Netanyahu in July on American contingency plans for an assault on Iran. An Israeli official yesterday denied the report.
While the Israeli premier has insisted that he does not meddle in the US elections, Mr Netanyahu has publicly spoken of his close friendship with Mr Romney and analysts say he is unofficially endorsing the former Massachusetts governor.
Mr Netanyahu supports Mr Romney because of the likelihood that he would back a tougher approach on Iran and an expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, according to experts. The Obama administration has opposed an Israeli strike, and says more time must be given for diplomacy and sanctions to work.
Mr Netanyahu yesterday tacitly condemned the policy of Mr Obama. Before his meeting with Mr Romney, the Israeli prime minister said "all the sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian programme by one iota".
Mr Romney's meetings in Israel are especially critical to bolster his foreign policy credentials after a serious of gaffes on his first stop in London when he criticised Britain's preparedness for the Olympic Games, and was ridiculed by his hosts.
Mr Romney is due to hold a fund-raiser in Jerusalem's luxurious King David Hotel today for 50 wealthy backers, with the cost of attending speculated by Israeli media to be US$50,000 (Dh183,600) per couple.
The participants include Sheldon Adelson, a US Jewish billionaire with pro-settler views who has pledged to spend $100 million to prevent Mr Obama from being reelected. Mr Adelson is also a backer of Mr Netanyahu, and funds Israel's Yisrael Hayom newspaper, which gives favourable coverage to the prime minister.
* Additional reporting by the Associated Press