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Perry's Middle East stance both religious and political

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 7:20 AM EDT, Thu September 22, 2011
Rick Perry harshly criticized President Barack Obama's policies in the Middle East this week.
Rick Perry harshly criticized President Barack Obama's policies in the Middle East this week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Texas governor harshly criticized President Obama's Middle East policies
  • Perry's right-wing views on Israel reflect his evangelical Christian faith
  • One analyst says Perry's policies appeal to a core conservative audience

Washington (CNN) -- In his 2010 book "Fed Up!" about all that is wrong with U.S. governance, Texas Gov. Rick Perry never mentioned Israel or Palestinians.

A year later, as a Republican presidential hopeful, Perry jumped into the complex and thorny Middle East issue this week by harshly criticizing President Barack Obama's policies in the region.

Perry's comments, which reflected both his conservative principles and evangelical Christian faith, sought to capitalize on a political calculation that Obama is vulnerable on the issue among an influential and traditionally Democratic constituency -- the Jewish vote.

By aggressively joining a foreign policy debate, Perry was able to appeal to core conservative constituencies and address a potential shortcoming on his resume from a career mired in Texas politics, said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.

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"From a tactics standpoint, why not?" Galston said. "The administration policy in the Middle East for the most part has gone nowhere. Why not get into the mix right now?"

As an early leader in the race for the GOP nomination to take on Obama next year, Perry needs to shore up his conservative base to survive the Republican primaries and broaden his support if he wants to win the general election.

He held a news conference Tuesday in New York as Obama and top aides tried to head off a possible U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood this week.

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Perry blamed Obama's handling of the issue for what he characterized as a potentially harmful step for the region.

"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, accusing the president of "appeasement" by accepting a moral equivalency between the grievances of a vital strategic ally in Israel and a terrorist-linked adversary of that ally in the Palestinians.

His harsh language and belligerent tone reflected the right-wing beliefs of Israeli political figures and U.S. Jewish leaders who stood behind him at the New York news conference.

When asked about his views, Perry cited both a political and a spiritual source.

"I also as a Christian have a clear directive to support Israel," he said. "So from my perspective, it's pretty easy. Both as an American and as a Christian, I am going to stand with Israel."

To Galston, Perry benefits from a convergence between his deeply held views and a political climate in which those views appeal to valuable audiences.

"My default assumption is that he thoroughly identifies with the most important policy commitments of the evangelical community," Galston said. "It happens to be entirely consistent with the political strategy he's pursing."

However, Perry's sharp criticism included some questionable assertions. He downplayed Obama's threat to veto a resolution on Palestinian statehood, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered the president high praise for it Wednesday.

"I think that standing your ground, taking this position of principle -- which is also I think the right position to achieve peace -- I think this is a badge of honor," Netanyahu said when he and Obama met at the United Nations. "And I want to thank you for wearing that badge of honor, and also, I would express my hope that others will follow your example, Mr. President."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, took exception with Perry's characterization of U.S. Middle East policy, telling CNN on Tuesday that

"I don't think that appeasement is an accurate description of the policy of this administration in the United States."

"The Obama administration is backing the security of Israel, for which I'm responsible in our government, in a way that could hardly be compared to any previous administration," Barak said, adding: "I don't think that he's part of the problem. He's part of the solution and should be."

Perry also mischaracterized some of the history of the Israel-Palestinian negotiations, calling for the Palestinians to recognize Israel's right to exist -- which the Palestine Liberation Organization did in connection with the 1993 Oslo Accords. However, Hamas, the militant group that governs the Gaza Strip, still refuses to accept Israel's right to exist.

Such rhetoric by Perry could help him in the Republican primaries, when conservative support can win the day, but end up hurting his ability to expand his support among moderate Republicans and independents, especially Jewish voters who have usually supported Democrats.

According to CNN exit polls in the 2008 presidential election, then-Sen. Obama won nearly 80% of Jewish votes. While they only made up 2% of the voting electorate then, Jewish voters may be a factor in next year's general election in battleground states such as Florida, which has a large Jewish population.

A recent Gallup poll put the president's approval rating among Jewish American voters at 54%, down from earlier this year, but still above his approval rating among all Americans.

CNN's Jim Acosta and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

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