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Israeli PM tries to strike more neutral pose in U.S. election

Friction mounts as Israel asks that U.S. give Iran an ultimatum; a tricky position for Obama, whose foreign policy has been lauded. NBC's Andrea Mitchell and CNBC's John Harwood report.

 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought Sunday to assume a more neutral posture toward the American presidential election, distancing himself from Mitt Romney's suggestion that President Barack Obama has thrown Israel "under the bus."

The Israeli prime minister, appearing Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," downplayed longstanding indications of pressure between himself and Obama and urged more bipartisanship from Americans in support of the Jewish state. Netanyahu told moderator David Gregory that his primary concern was preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, not influencing the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. 

To that end, Netanyahu said that Romney's accusation about Obama having essentially abandoned Israel on the world stage was "simply not the case and simply not my position."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses violence against Americans in the Middle East with NBC's David Gregory.

"There's no bus, and we're not going to get into that discussion," Netanyahu said of Romney's charge, which the GOP presidential nominee first made in May of 2011 following a speech by the president calling on Israel to return to pre-1967 border lines as part of peace negotiations with Palestinians. 

Romney has used Israel to distinguish himself most sharply from Obama in the arena of foreign policy. The Republican nominee visited Israel during a stop on his trip abroad this summer, and is generally seen as more sympathetic to Israel's hawkish stance toward Iran. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his press conference with the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, Israel, on 02 February 2010.

Moreover, the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is generally regarded as tense, a charge which the Israeli prime minister rejected. 

"I'm always pleased and happy to have a conversation with President Obama," said Netanyahu, downplaying reports that Obama had allegedly sought to avoid meeting with the prime minister during the upcoming U.N. General Assembly in New York. "We've had our discussions; our schedules on this visit didn't work out … but we continue to be in close consultations."

David Gregory analyzes a special hour of Meet the Press featuring interviews with US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice; and Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

For all of Netanyahu's pleas, though, he has become a central figure in the U.S. presidential election. Romney seized upon the alleged snub during a fundraiser in New York on Friday. 

"I thought the president's decision not to meet with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu was an extraordinary confusing and troubling decision," said Romney, whose relationship with Netanyahu dates back to their shared days at Boston Consulting Group. "I don't know what the president is trying to send to the world in terms of a message but it does send a message. It sends a message not just to Israel but to the other nations throughout the Middle East."

A Meet the Press roundtable discusses recent upheaval in the Middle East and how the United States intends to respond.

Netanyahu himself argued his agitations toward Iran weren't meant to coincide with the American election. 

"What's guiding my statements is not the American political calendar but the Iranian nuclear calendar," he said. "It's really not a partisan political issue."

The political fighting over Israel plays out against a broader backdrop in which Iran is reportedly advancing in its development of a nuclear weapon; the U.S. also suffered four casualties — including Ambassador Christopher Stevens — this week in Libya after protesters stormed a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Other embassies suffered turmoil, and the State Department on Saturday ordered family and non-emergency personnel evacuated from posts in Sudan and Tunisia. 

Those developments have injected foreign policy into the center of the U.S. presidential election as Obama tries to quell protests against American embassies related to an amateur video mocking Islam. After the attack in Benghazi, Romney controversially pounced and suggested the administration's condemnation of the video was tantamount to "an apology for America’s values."

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also appearing Sunday on "Meet the Press," termed that accusation a "vacuous charge of weakness."

"I think the American people welcome strong, steady unified leadership — bipartisan in times of challenge," she said.