The W Hotel in Union Square looked more like a Forest Hills J.C.C. when Rick Perry strode up to the podium to deliver a speech on the Holy Land this morning. There were nearly a hundred Jewish people in the room, and, aside from the press corps, yarmulkes almost outnumbered bare heads. Also in attendance was Bob Turner, the freshly minted New York congressman apparently determined to make Israel a signature issue after his upset election victory. He watched as Perry, a day after dining at a Mexican restaurant in Inwood, began courting another traditionally Democrat-friendly demographic.
Perry’s address drew heavily from Republican orthodoxy on the Middle East: Two-state solutions are ideal, but are only valid through direct negotiations between Palestine and Israel, not a third-party body like the U.N.; Palestinians can’t be trusted until the rocket attacks stop, Gilad Shalit (the Israeli soldier captured in 2006) is released, and leaders affirm Israel’s right to exist; Obama’s policy on Israel is “naïve, arrogant, misguided, and dangerous.” and so on. Perry called Obama “naïve” twice more during the speech, echoing Hillary Clinton’s critique of Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. Some attack lines don’t die, they just lay dormant for a while.
The occasion for the speech was this week’s U.N. General Assembly, the annual event that makes New York’s east side as hard to navigate as a road map for Middle East peace. While he’s in town, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, is expected to ask the U.N. to recognize Palestine as a state. The Obama administration, which has struggled to convince Jews that (as John Heilemann argues in this week’s New York) the president is a friend of Israel, plans to oppose the request.
Perry, after witnessing NY-9’s Jewish voters practically singing Hatikvah as they went to the polls last week, is trying to take advantage of the administration’s dilemma. If Anthony Weiner’s old district can go red, after all, then so can Florida. The point of the speech wasn’t so much about painting Perry as pro-Israel — nearly every candidate, Republican or Democrat anoints himself as such — as much as it was about hammering home the message to some already peeved Jewish voters that Obama is anti-Israel. By my count, Perry said Obama had “appeased” Palestinians three times in his speech, a word to which Jewish audiences are particularly attuned.
During a question-and-answer session afterward, Perry reiterated that if the U.N. offered statehood to Palestine, the United States should think about revoking its financial support for the international body. (Bob Turner told me he would seriously consider backing such legislation in Congress.) But the real news was Perry’s promise that, “as the President of the United States, if you want to work for the State Department, you will be working in Jerusalem” — a signal that the American embassy should be moved from its current location in Tel Aviv. It seems like a small thing, but when you’re talking about American–Israeli relations, there is no such thing. For over fifteen years, American presidents, including George W. Bush, have blocked legislation to relocate the United States embassy to Jerusalem, concerned that it would jeopardize the peace process.
Perry doesn’t seem to share such concerns. “I hope you will tell the people of Israel that help is on the way,” he said to applause. Whether Perry will be able to follow through on his promises depends, to some degree, on whether he’s the Chosen People’s choice.