WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama defended his handling of tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a "60 Minutes" segment that contrasted his style with Mitt Romney’s.
The segment on Sunday featuring separate interviews played like a prelude to the debates next month between the two candidates for the presidency.
Romney, the Republican candidate, targeted Obama for turning down Netanyahu’s request for a meeting with both leaders in New York this week to address the U.N. General Assembly.
"I think we also have to communicate that Israel is our ally — our close ally," said Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. "The president’s decision not to meet with Bibi Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, when the prime minister is here for the United Nations session, I think, is a mistake and it sends a message throughout the Middle East that somehow we distance ourselves from our friends and I think the exact opposite approach is what’s necessary."
Netanyahu pressed for a meeting because of accelerating tensions with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program.
Obama’s aides noted that the president leaves New York before Yom Kippur, on Wednesday, and that Netanyahu arrives afterward. They also pointed out that Obama has not scheduled any one-on-one meetings with foreign leaders during the General Assembly.
Obama told the CBS newsmagazine that he did not regard as pressure Netanyahu’s public complaints about the Obama administration’s failure to draw red lines for Iran.
"Well, look, I have conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu all the time," Obama said. "And I understand and share Prime Minister Netanyahu’s insistence that Iran should not obtain a nuclear weapon because it would threaten us, it would threaten Israel and it would threaten the world and kick off a nuclear arms race."
Pressed on whether Netanyahu’s statements constituted pressure, Obama said, "When it comes to our national security decisions, any pressure that I feel is simply to do what’s right for the American people. And I am going to block out any noise that’s out there. Now I feel an obligation, not pressure but obligation, to make sure that we’re in close consultation with the Israelis on these issues because it affects them deeply. They’re one of our closest allies in the region. And we’ve got an Iranian regime that has said horrible things that directly threaten Israel’s existence."