Texas Governor Rick Perry stood out Wednesday morning at his speech to leaders of religious Jewish and pro-Israel organizations at the W hotel near Union Square in Manhattan. Standing in front of a group of bearded, mostly yarmulke-wearing men—and they were almost all men—Perry emceed the event, speaking first and then introducing a string of increasingly minor figures.
The theme of Perry’s speech was that everything bad in the Middle East is Obama’s fault. His top concern was the Palestinian request that the UN recognize their state. “We would not be here today at the precipice of such a dangerous move if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn’t naïve, arrogant, misguided and dangerous,” said Perry. The Obama administration, of course, has been working to convince the Palestinian Authority not to press ahead with that request, and will veto the UN resolution if it comes to a Security Council vote. So it’s not clear what a President Perry would have done differently, or more effectively. Perry said Obama has “failed to insist” that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist and that it cannot declare statehood unilaterally. But the Obama administration does, in fact, hold those two positions. Likewise Perry asserts that the United States must prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, as if the Obama administration had a policy of letting them do so.
Where Perry does substantively differ from Obama is the unbalanced way he would use America’s financial power to pressure various actors. Like Obama, Perry never dares mention the billions of dollars in US aid that flow to Israel nor does he suggest that those monies could ever be jeopardized by Israeli stubbornness. But Perry did say that the United States should stop paying its dues to the UN if it approves the Palestinian statehood resolution and withdraw funding for the Palestinian Authority if it moves ahead with the resolution. Perry also complained that Obama did not provide sufficient support to Iranian protesters and implied that the regime would have been overthrown if he had.
As Ben Smith of Politico notes, some of the hardliners at Perry’s speech—including deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset Danny Danon, who spoke after Perry—oppose a two-state solution and think Israel should annex the West Bank entirely. Perry, did not adopt that position, saying in response to a question that he supports a two-state solution. But, his general reflex was to answer every question with the most right-wing position possible. For instance, when asked whether Israel should be permitted to continue building settlements, he said, “I think so.” He also said he is “for Jerusalem being united under Israeli rule,” and for moving the US embassy there.
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If Perry actually pursued these policies in office, he would be a bit to the right of Obama, but also of George W. Bush. Bush, after all, called for Israel to stop building settlements in his “Roadmap to Peace.”
While it may have no basis in Obama’s policy, the perception that Obama doesn’t full support Israel is quite real. Perry introduced a slew of leaders of Orthodox Jewish and pro-Israel groups who complained that Obama has neglected Israel’s needs. Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-NY), an Orthodox power-broker whose backing of Republican Bob Turner was crucial to Turner’s victory in Anthony Weiner’s former district last week, brought down the house with thundering declarations that the voters of New York’s ninth district sent a message to Obama that he “has the wrong policy on Israel.” What exactly that policy is that Hikind finds so objectionable remains unclear, even after I pressed him repeatedly for details after the event. The only meaningful example Hikind gave was that Obama “halted the peace process” by demanding that Israel stop settlement construction in the Occupied Territories. (Like any theocrat, Hikind calls the West Bank “Judea and Samaria.”) It does seem that as an African-American whose father was Muslim, Obama faces an unfounded suspicion that he is hostile to Israel, despite all evidence to the contrary. “A lot of us were concerned about him before he was elected,” says Hikind. Needless to say, Obama’s statements regarding Israel on the campaign trail and his voting record in the Senate gave them no legitimate cause for concern. But there were rumors spreading on websites and e-mail chains of mysterious provenance that attacked Obama’s beliefs on Israel with racially tinged smears.
Hikind is bent out of shape about other issues that can best be described as tangential at most to Israel’s security. For example, Hikind bellowed that he is appalled that the US has an ambassador in Damascus despite the Syrian government’s repression of its people.
But however inexplicable the notion that Obama does not support Israel may be, Hikind certainly holds it. “It would be almost beyond the pale to support Obama, having watched him the last three years,” Hikind declared. I asked Hikind what would it take for Obama to win his vote in 2012. “Change would have to happen fast and I’d have to believe it’s real,” says Hikind, noting that politicians offer make insincere policy shifts during campaign season. One might say that Hikind is putting Obama in an impossible bind by saying he must change his stance on Israel but that he will view any change with suspicion. But since their policy beefs with Obama are so obscure to begin with, the point is probably moot. Any attempt to be balanced or fair in our handling of the Palestinians and Israelis is unacceptable to Perry and to right wing Zionists. Israel is our ally, Hamas and Fatah are terrorists who threaten them, and our job is to back Israel without nuance. How that advances the peace process or Israel’s long term security is unclear. Perry said he would tell Israel, “help is on the way!” Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of help they need.