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Israel, Iran name checks illustrate America's twin obsessions

Jason Reed / Reuters, file

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on July 29. The two men are friends from three decades back when they worked together at the Boston Consulting Group.

News analysis

TEL AVIV, Israel -- In a season dominated by opinion poll numbers, here's another telling figure: 34.

That was the number of times Israel was mentioned in the final debate between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.  Iran recieved a more frequent name check but that was often in association with Israel. All-in-all, it added up to a pretty accurate gauge of the United States' foreign policy obsessions.

Clearly Israel is still the center of the American world – exactly where a country on the receiving end of $3 billion of military aid annually likes to be.  And at the crux of the Israel-United States' relationship, and presidential race, is what Washington would do if Israel attacked Iran's nuclear program.

"(Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu has turned the Iranian issue into something so significant, an existential threat, that now many people here believe that so much now depends on whoever is the president of the United States," said Ronen Bergman, an Israeli commentator and journalist. "The prime minister believes that a President Romney would turn a blind eye – or show a sort of blinking green light – to an Israeli airstrike on Iran."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday was quoted as saying that his country may still decide next year whether to launch a military strike against Iran, despite Tehran drawing back from its ambitions to build a nuclear weapon.

Tehran denies its nuclear work has any military dimensions but governments in Europe and the United States are increasingly concerned about its intentions. 

Friends for decades
U.S.-Israeli relations have endured an unusually rocky period during the Obama administration, from Washington’s failed attempts to force the pace on Palestinian peace talks to Iran's nuclear program.

Ties between the United States and Israel showed new signs of strain, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the U.S. for not taking a harder line on Iran. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

So if not quite endorsing Romney, Netanyahu made his preference for the Republican challenger perfectly clear. 

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The two men are friends from three decades back when they worked together at the Boston Consulting Group. They share a conservative outlook and a multi-billionaire backer in the shape of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

Romney’s summer visit to Jerusalem cemented the deal. He praised Israel's "economic vitality" compared to its Palestinian neighbor, and said it had much to do with the "hand of providence." 

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had another diplomatic misstep – this time in Israel. The Romney campaign pushed back, disputing the reporting of Romney's comments. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

But it is Iran which has brought to the two together.

And that suits the Israeli prime minister fine. He is fighting his own election and wants national security and specifically Iran, issues on which he can portray himself as a strong leader, to the fore.

But would Romney turn out to be quite as supporting of a military strike as some in Israel hope? During the third and final presidential debate, Romney was offered the chance to explicitly say whether he would support an Israeli attack on Iran.

President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney discuss foreign policy in the third and final presidential debate.

He didn't take it, dismissing the question as "hypothetical" and saying the issue would have to "discussed and carefully evaluated." Not too different from Obama.

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Still, Israelis favor the Republican candidate by a margin of two-to-one, a recent opinion poll commissioned by Tel Aviv University found.

"(Romney) is better … because he wants to be friends with Israel," said Ya'acov Rassamkin, a student from Jerusalem. "Romney wants the U.S. and Israel to be real partners, like one team, and Obama on the other hand wants to be friends but not act like one team."

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And to wonder which way Israel would actually vote for in the American election is not an entirely theoretical question.

According to IVoteIsrael, around 160,000 Israeli citizens possess U.S. passports. By campaign’s end, almost half will have registered postal votes.

Both Democrats and Republicans here say the issue of security is the number one concern.

"Israelis feel that Israel would be in better shape if Mitt Romney is elected,’" said Abe Katsman, of Republicans Abroad Israel. "The biggest problem with President Obama is that he had done a lot of damage to the relationship with Israel. The idea of putting daylight between America and an ally strikes me as a very dangerous thing to do."

Democrats here are acutely sensitive to the charge of "throwing Israel under the bus," and intensely angered by it.

"Obama understands the need for security and the right to live in a Jewish state and a democracy," said Sheldon Schorer, of Democrats Abroad Israel. "He's proven it time and time again. The relationship between the president of the United States and the state of Israel has never been better."

Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images, file

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chat during meetings in the Oval Office on March 5.

In return there have been warm words for the president from defense minister Barak and the retired head of the Mossad intelligence agency, Ephraim Halevy, who referred to Obama's sanctions on Iran as a "success."

And there are many Israelis worried that their prime minister has gambled too heavily on a Romney victory. Their concern: that a returning President Obama might want a little pay back.

"The question is if Obama is re-elected, will he retaliate for the unprecedented support Netanyahu has given (to Romney) and try to force him where he is really afraid to go; back into peace negotiations with the Palestinians," Bergman said.

The Iranian economy is in free fall, with its currency, the rial hitting a record low. NBC's Ali Arouzi reports.

And if Israel and Iran are taking starring roles in the U.S. campaign, the Palestinians haven't merited much more than a walk on part.

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In headline terms, if Palestinians view Obama as a disappointment, then Romney they fear would be a disaster.

And in their eyes, Romney compounded his missteps in Jerusalem with his secretly taped description of Palestinians as "committed to the destruction and elimination" of Israel while indicating he's unlikely to pursue the creation of a Palestinian state.

The Palestinian-American blogger and businessman Sam Bahour writes: "Romney scares me, seriously scares me. President Obama may have failed the Middle East in his first term as he picked up the pieces of eight years of damage caused by George W. Bush's administration, but every time Gov. Romney opens his mouth on Middle East affairs he exposes his extraordinary American ignorance."

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Of Obama, he adds there is only a "weak hope that a second term president" would address Palestinian aspirations.

Iran's regular army has begun two days of ground and air military exercises. Iranian authorities say they want to increase combat readiness and deterrence against attack. NBC's Ali Arouzi reports. 

Israel's own day of democratic decision-making takes place just two days after the next U.S. president assumes power in January.

Netanyahu is widely expected to win and he will argue that in a Middle East that's got a whole lot more difficult for America to manage, merely keeping Israel and the Iranian question at the top of the White House agenda is a triumph.

Still, there's a balance to be struck between loyal ally and troublesome partner. And it would be foolish to assume that whoever's in the Oval Office will be willing to do Israel's bidding.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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