NEW YORK — Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and their GOP presidential rivals slammed President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies Tuesday while emphatically declaring their own support for Israel as the United Nations considered a bid for Palestinian statehood.
Republican front-runner Perry, the Texas governor, denounced the president’s Israel policy as “misguided and dangerous,” speaking to supporters in New York as the Obama administration worked a few miles away to thwart a U.N. vote to grant formal recognition to the Palestinian Authority.
Perry also accused Obama of appeasement, as did Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who assailed the president from the Midwest.
Perry’s chief rival for the nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, issued a statement accusing Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus.”
The Republican campaigns have similar goals: establish contrasts with Obama on an issue where he has struggled; chip away at American Jews’ support for Democrats; and prove their conservative, pro-Israel bona fides with the evangelical voters who will play a significant role in the GOP presidential primaries.
During the 2008 election campaign, Obama worked hard to reassure nervous Jewish voters that he would defend Israel as president. But he’s faced doubts and criticism since then.
Perry criticized Obama’s stated goal that any negotiations should be based on Israel’s borders prior to the 1967 Mideast war, with mutually agreed adjustments and land swaps to accommodate population shifts and some homebuilding since 1967. Perry called that stance “insulting and naive.”
Obama angered Israel earlier this year by endorsing a Palestinian demand that negotiations over future borders begin with the lines Israel held before capturing the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in 1967.
In regard to potential official recognition, the administration has been working intensively behind the scenes to restart direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and to persuade Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to drop his push and avoid an explosive confrontation at the U.N. later in the week.
But Perry had strong criticism nonetheless, speaking to a group of ultraconservative Jewish and Israeli leaders at a New York hotel.
“Simply put, 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, arrogant, misguided and dangerous,” Perry said, flanked by U.S. and Israeli flags. “The Obama administration has appeased the Arab Street at the expense of our own national security interests. They have sowed instability that threatens the prospect of peace.”
Romney said, “What we are watching unfold at the United Nations is an unmitigated diplomatic disaster. It is the culmination of President Obama’s repeated efforts over three years to undermine its negotiating position.” He called for an end to U.S. foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority if the U.N. vote went the Palestinians’ way.
The candidates’ remarks represented their efforts to win over the conservative and evangelical voters who care deeply about GOP support for Israel. They back Israel as a U.S. ally in the fight against terror and as a rare democracy in the volatile Mideast. Some also support Israel for theological reasons.
Perry told reporters his support for Israel was in part driven by his religious faith.
“I also as a Christian have a clear directive to support Israel, so from my perspective it’s pretty easy,” Perry said when a reporter asked if Perry’s faith was driving his views. “Both as an American and as a Christian, I am going to stand with Israel.”
Republicans who describe themselves as evangelical prefer Perry over Romney — 33 percent really like Perry while just 17 percent really like Romney, according to an August AP-GfK poll. Republicans who aren’t evangelical like both men about the same.
A third Republican candidate, Minnesota Rep. Bachmann, also weighed in Tuesday — but Bachmann, also an evangelical, left religion out of it and instead issued a statement calling on Obama to prevent Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from coming to the U.N.
“Ahmadinejad has shown himself to be an enemy not only of Israel, but also of the United States,” the Minnesota congresswoman said. “This administration tried and failed to do outreach to Iran, reminding us once again that appeasement of deadly dictators is never a wise or effective strategy.”
Perry also accused the Obama administration of appeasing bad actors in the Middle East in connection with the Palestinian statehood effort.
“We’re equally indignant of the Obama administration and their Middle East policy of appeasement that has encouraged such an ominous act of bad faith.” In a political context, “appeasement” is language sometimes used to describe how European governments tried to accommodate Adolf Hitler without sparking war.
Obama’s re-election campaign was prepared to deal with the political fallout and assembled a team of prominent Jews ready to defend the president’s record on Israel.
“It appears to be a coordinated Republican effort to distort and misrepresent Obama’s strong record and support for Israel, by these presidential candidates and others, for partisan advantage,” said former Democratic Rep. Mel Levine of California, who spoke to The Associated Press after Obama’s campaign asked him to.
In 2008, Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote against Republican John McCain. While few strategists expect Jewish voters to swing heavily toward the GOP next year, even a small erosion of support for Obama could make a difference in Florida, a major swing state, and in several House districts across the country.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes strongly defended the president’s record on Israel on Tuesday. “This administration could not have been a stronger friend and supporter here,” Rhodes told reporters at the U.N. “What we’re here to do is strongly support Israel and help work toward a two-state solution” in the best interest of both Israel and the Palestinians, Rhodes said.
Tensions are likely to escalate as the week goes on. Abbas, the Palestinian leader, said he will continue to seek full U.N. membership even though he says he is under “tremendous pressure” to drop the effort. The U.S. has indicated it would veto the proposal in the U.N. Security Council.
U.S. officials are insisting there is still time to avoid a divisive showdown, and have been working with Western allies in hopes of a last-minute compromise. Obama is to address the U.N. on Wednesday.
Kasie Hunt reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Bradley Klapper contributed from New York, Thomas Beaumont from Des Moines, Iowa, and Brian Bakst from Minnesota.