WASHINGTON (JTA) – A speech by President Bush that was supposed to have been the apotheosis of U.S.-Israel solidarity instead sparked a toxic political exchange in the partisan battle for American votes.
Barack Obama’s swift response to President Bush’s remarks to the Knesset about appeasing terrorists also showed how determined the Obama campaign is to hit back hard against perceived smears, drawing lessons from John Kerry’s slow-footed response in 2004 to attacks on his military record.
Bush did not specifically reference Obama in his speech Thursday, the high point of three days of festivities marking Israel’s 60th anniversary.
“Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Bush said. “We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared, ‘ Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’
“We have an obligation to call this what it is: the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”
Obama, the U.S. senator from Illinois and the front-runner in the race for the Democratic candidacy in November, has said that as president he would meet with leaders of pariah states, but he has rejected meeting with terrorist groups.
However, Republicans including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, have likened Obama’s stance to reaching out to terrorists, and Obama took Bush’s remarks as a swipe at him.
“It is sad that President Bush would use a speech to the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence to launch a false political attack,” Obama said in a statement. “Instead of tough talk and no action, we need to do what Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan did and use all elements of American power – including tough, principled and direct diplomacy – to pressure countries like Iran and Syria.
“George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president’s extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel.”
A White House spokeswoman denied that Obama was the target.
“There are many who have suggested these types of negotiations with people that President Bush thinks we should not talk to,” Dana Perino said. “I understand when you’re running for office you sometimes think the world revolves around you. That is not always true, and it is not true in this case.”
MSNBC, however, quoted a senior administration official as saying that the remarks apply to Obama as well as to former President Jimmy Carter, who recently met with Hamas officials in Syria. Obama criticized Carter for that meeting.
The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, who was at the Knesset, said that if anything the president was referring to Carter – but that more likely he was simply enunciating what long has been known as the Bush Doctrine.
“This has been Gorge Bush, this has been his policy: You don’t talk to terrorists,” Foxman told JTA. “To say to negotiate with Hamas and Hezbollah and al-Qaida is appeasement is not a political statement. It was a very special moment.”
That Obama’s response came within hours of Bush’s speech was typical of the swiftness of his campaign’s earlier refutations of false accusations that Obama is a Muslim or that he has cultivated anti-Israel foreign policy advisers.
In talks with Jewish groups, Obama has said he learned from the attacks on Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who during his presidential bid took weeks to answer false allegations that he had faked his Vietnam War record.
Those attacks gave the political lexicon a new term, “swift-boating,” referring to the military river vessel manned by Kerry and others during the war.
Democrats say they have reason to fear such tactics. Proxies for McCain have told the JTA they hope to siphon Jewish votes from Obama, should he become the Democratic nominee, in critical swing states such as New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
One signal of the Democrats’ determination to head off such allegations was their use of Kerry himself as a rebutter in remarks on the popular liberal Web site TalkingPointsMemo.com.
“It’s absolutely shameless that an American president would use a speech in front of a foreign government to launch such a petty political attack,” Kerry wrote Thursday.
The Republican Jewish Coalition said Obama was suspiciously defensive.
“Why, when Barack Obama hears the word ‘appeasement,’ does he think it applies to him?” it asked in a statement.
Bush often has used “some people” locutions as a rhetorical device, not specifying exactly whom he is singling out for criticism. Media critics at The Associated Press and the Washington Post, among other publications, have expressed frustration with this tactic, saying it gives Bush unfair deniability when a target – like Obama – calls the attack a smear.
The Democratic National Committee called on McCain to repudiate Bush’s comments.
“Bush’s outrageous comments are an embarrassment to our country, not based in fact and bring us no closer to our goal of ending terrorist attacks against Israel and bringing peace to the region,” DNC chairman Howard Dean said.
McCain responded, “Yes, there have been appeasers in the past, and the president is exactly right, and one of them is Neville Chamberlain,” he told reporters in Columbus, Ohio. “I believe that it’s not an accident that our hostages came home from Iran when President Reagan was president of the United States. He didn’t sit down in a negotiation with the religious extremists in Iran, he made it very clear that those hostages were coming home.”
In fact, the 1981 release was arranged under Carter’s watch, and the Iranians said at the time that they timed it to humiliate the outgoing president because of his confrontational posture during the hostage crisis.
Democrats virtually piled on in slamming Bush’s remarks.
“We don’t criticize the president when he is on foreign soil,” said U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the speaker of the House of Representatives who is about to lead a bipartisan congressional delegation to Israel. “One would think that that would apply to the president, that he would not criticize Americans when he is on foreign soil. I think what the president did in that regard is beneath the dignity of the office of president and unworthy of our representation at that observance in Israel.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council cast Bush’s comments as insulting to Israel.
“It was a real honor that Bush was invited to address the Knesset on Israel’s 60th anniversary,” it said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Bush took advantage of this opportunity to use the power and prestige of the presidency to launch a shameless political attack on foreign soil.”
J Street, a newly formed dovish pro-Israel lobby, echoed that theme. In an e-mail blast it called on followers to write Bush and say “Shame on you!”
Matt Dorf, a consultant to the Democratic Party who represents its views in the Jewish community, said Bush was not in a position to launch bromides.
“On President Bush’s watch, terrorists almost daily launch missiles into Israel, Hamas terrorists rule Gaza, Syria built a nuclear reactor, Iran is even closer to building a nuclear bomb, Hezbollah terrorists are threatening our allies Israel and Lebanon, and Iraq is a breeding ground for terrorists,” Dorf told JTA.
“President Bush has a lot of nerve making false accusations against Democrats while his policies have left Israel less safe than it was when he became president.”