The prospect of a United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood did not escape the notice of the Republican contenders for president, as Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday hurled himself into the debate over Middle East policy with a public address on the subject in New York City.
Perry appeared in New York flanked by Jewish leaders from the U.S. and Israel. And just as he did in an op-ed piece last week for the Wall Street Journal, Perry blasted President Obama's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"We would not be here today at the precipice of such a dangerous move if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn't naive and arrogant, misguided and dangerous," Perry said.
Perry criticized the White House for seeking concessions from Israel — in particular, the administration's call for a freeze on construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. He argued that the Obama administration has emboldened the Palestinian Authority to turn its back on the peace process and seek a vote on statehood in the UN instead.
"Indeed, bolstered by the Obama administration's policies and apologists at the U.N., the Palestinians are exploiting the instability in the Middle East, hoping to achieve their objective without concessions and direct negotiations with Israel," Perry said.
Perry promised there will be no ambiguity if he's elected president.
"We are going to be there to support you. And we are going to be unwavering in that. So I hope you will tell the people of Israel: Help is on the way," Perry said.
The White House's relationship with Israel has lately emerged as a potent issue in New York politics. It helped propel Republican Bob Turner to a special election victory last week in a New York City congressional district dominated by Democrats. Turner was at Perry's side on Tuesday to reinforce that point, as was New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jew and a Democrat who crossed party lines to endorse Turner.
"The message in the 9th District is a very clear one, and it should be crystal clear to the White House: We don't like your policy on Israel," Hikind said.
Hikind stopped short of endorsing Perry. But he did offer this compliment: "Saw your article in the Wall Street Journal, and I thought, 'That sounds like me.' That sounds like a man who understands the situation the people of Israel are confronted with. They want peace," Hikind said.
Not all of the Republican presidential hopefuls agreed.
"I've forgotten more about Israel than Rick Perry knows about Israel," former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told Politico. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Perry's main rival for the GOP nomination, released a statement more in line with Perry's speech, accusing the Obama administration of throwing Israel "under the bus."
But some observers — including many in the American Jewish community — say that's going too far. David Harris of the American Jewish Committee points out that the White House has threatened to veto a resolution on Palestinian statehood in the U.N. Security Council.
"That's pretty heavy lifting. It's also said no to a Palestinian strategy at the General Assembly that would create some sort of statehood. That takes a lot of commitment. So just this week, there are some good examples of an administration standing pretty tall, pretty strong, to defend Israel and the relationship with the United States," Harris says.
When asked about Perry's criticisms, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the administration has been "unshakable" in its support of Israel. And Robert Malley, a top aide on Middle East policy during the Clinton administration, agrees.
"If anything, this administration has been more supportive of Israel than virtually any of its predecessors. If you look at the record in terms of practical support — military support, intelligence cooperation, support in the international institutions like the U.N. — the U.S. and the administration [have] been on the side of Israel on all those occasions," Malley says.
Still, Malley admits that there is a perception that the White House has not been as supportive of Israel as it could have been. And he thinks Obama's political adversaries will continue to exploit that perception.
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Perry Takes Aggressive Pro-Israel Stance
Some leaders find it difficult to choose sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Not Rick Perry.
“As a Christian I have a clear directive to support Israel,” the Republican presidential frontrunner said at a New York campaign stop Tuesday morning. “But that’s easy for me. Both as an American and as a Christian, I am going to stand with Israel.”
The Texas governor slammed President Obama for his more nuanced stance on the decades-long conflict, calling it “naïve, arrogant, misguided and dangerous.” He accused the president of “isolating and undermining Israel” and appeasing “the Arab street at the expense of our national security interests.”
The strong words came as Palestinian leaders are preparing to seek statehood through the United Nations. Obama and other Western leaders have been trying unsuccessfully to talk them back into negotiations with Israel.
Perry blamed Obama for allowing things to get to this point, saying his policy of “moral equivalency” gave “equal standing to the grievances of Israelis and Palestinians, including the orchestrators of terrorism.” He added, “There is no middle ground between our allies and those who seek their destruction.”
For all the bluster, Perry’s position was, at least in one sense, less extreme than it could have been: He said he would support a two-state solution if it arose from bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
In other ways, however, his pro-Israel views went further than those of most other U.S. leaders, including his fellow Republican candidates, the New York Times noted. He suggested that if the Palestinians won statehood recognition at the United Nations, as president he would cut U.S. funding to both the Palestinians and the U.N. And he said he supported Israel’s right to keep building new settlements, which is the opposite of the longstanding American policy, ABC News’ Christiane Amanpour pointed out.
His remarks have already drawn a rebuke from one of his Republican challengers. Rick Santorum, a staunch conservative, told Politico he thinks Perry’s the one who is naïve:
“I’ve forgotten more about Israel than Rick Perry knows about Israel,” Santorum said. “There he is, reading a speech that I’m sure he didn’t write, and has never taken a position on any of this stuff before, and [the media is] taking this guy seriously.”
So far Republican voters are taking him seriously as well. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll had him leading second-place Mitt Romney, 31 percent to 24 percent.
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