By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008
JERUSALEM, May 15 -- On an emotional visit to mark Israel's 60th anniversary, President Bush on Thursday compared people seeking talks with Iran and radical Islamic groups to the Nazis' appeasers, provoking a political storm at home and accusations that he was politicizing the celebration.
Bush's address to the Israeli parliament also stirred intense debate between Israelis and Palestinians. His strong words of empathy for Israel brought lawmakers in the tiny chamber to their feet.
Palestinians expressed disappointment afterward that Bush did not use the occasion to press the Israelis forcefully to make compromises toward the creation of a Palestinian state. While Bush has frequently promoted that goal, the only reference in the speech came when he looked forward to the 120th anniversary of Israel and the prospect of a changed Middle East.
"The Palestinian people will have the homeland they have long dreamed of and deserved -- a democratic state that is governed by law, and respects human rights, and rejects terror," Bush said.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, called the speech a missed opportunity. Bush should have used the forum to address the urgency of ending the conflict, he said: "We shouldn't have to wait 60 more years for a Palestinian state."
Bush's comments about appeasement reverberated across the U.S. campaign trail, offering a new platform for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to sharpen their lines of attack.
In the speech, Bush warned that the United States must not negotiate with Iran or radical groups such as Hamas.
"Some seem to believe we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along," Bush told the Israeli lawmakers. "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."
Democrats angrily called the comment a veiled shot at Obama, who has advocated dialogue with Iran and Syria, but not the Palestinian group Hamas.
"We have a protocol . . . around here that we don't criticize the president when he is on foreign soil," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "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."
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, used an expletive to describe Bush's comment. He went on to say: "For this president to leave the country and unleash a political attack on Senator Obama and the Democrats cannot go unanswered. We're not going to tolerate this swiftboating," he said, referring to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign in 2004 to impugn the war record of Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic nominee.
Democratic leaders demanded that McCain repudiate Bush's comments, but McCain joined in on Bush's side. "Why does Senator Obama want to sit down with a state sponsor of terrorism? What does Senator Obama want to talk about with [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad?" McCain asked reporters while campaigning in Ohio.
"Yes, there have been appeasers in the past," McCain added. "The president is absolutely right." Asked whether he thought Obama was one of them, he said he didn't know.
In a statement, Obama responded to what he called "a false political attack," saying, "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."
White House press secretary Dana Perino dismissed the Democrats' complaints, saying that Bush's remarks were not directed at Obama. "This is not new policy that the president announced, and it should come as no surprise to anybody that the president would talk about this," Perino said.
Obama is far from the only politician who has advocated a renewed dialogue with Iran to try to get it to give up its nuclear-enrichment programs. A smaller number of U.S. politicians, including former president Jimmy Carter, have said the United States should talk to Hamas.
In his speech to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Bush said the incendiary language of Hamas and the armed Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah must be taken seriously. He invoked the legacy of the Holocaust, citing Hamas's call for the "elimination" of Israel, Hezbollah followers' chants of "Death to Israel, death to America" and the Iranian president's vow to wipe the Jewish state off the map.
"There are good and decent people who cannot fathom the darkness in these men and try to explain away their words. It is natural," Bush said. "But it is deadly wrong. As witnesses to evil in the past, we carry a solemn responsibility to take these words seriously. Jews and Americans have seen the consequences of disregarding the words of leaders who espouse hatred."
The Knesset address was the centerpiece of Bush's two-day visit to Israel, timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary. Bush also paid a visit to Masada, the Dead Sea fortress where Jewish rebels are said to have killed themselves almost 2,000 years ago rather than submit to Roman rule. He brought the Knesset audience to its feet when he vowed, "Masada shall never fall again, and America will be at your side."
Many Israelis admire Bush for his strong support of their actions against militants and his unwillingness to pressure their government in negotiations with the Palestinians, though there is also considerable sentiment here that the administration should have pushed harder for a peace deal during the past seven years.
Administration officials counter that conditions have not been ripe for a settlement because, in their view, the Palestinian leadership has been an unreliable partner for peace until recently.
The speech to the Knesset gave Bush an up-close view of Israel's raucous politics. His appearance was boycotted by the Arab members of the legislature, who number about a dozen, though three did appear with protest signs reading "We Shall Overcome." Two members who oppose creation of a Palestinian state left in protest when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in introducing Bush, spoke of a two-state solution to the conflict.
Bush also heard from opposition leader and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who drew applause from some quarters of the chamber when he declared that any peace deal would have to leave Jerusalem "intact under Israeli sovereignty" -- a controversial point because Palestinians also lay claim to a city considered the third holiest in Islam.
"It's a rare privilege to address the Knesset," Bush said, when it was finally his turn to speak, "and the prime minister told me there was something even rarer. To have just one person in the chamber speaking at a time."
Correspondent Griff Witte in Jerusalem and staff writers Michael D. Shear and Jonathan Weisman in Washington contributed to this report.