I don’t know if it was intentional, but the more than one hundred people, both supporters and press, attending Gov. Rick Perry’s press conference this morning on Israel and the United Nations were facing east, synagogue-style. The podium—the bimah-manqué—at which Perry spoke and then served as emcee for several other speakers, including deputy Knesset speaker Danny Danon, Rep.-elect Bob Turner, and Orthodox power broker Dov Hikind, faced west. And where the ark would be, there were a couple dozen supporters, many in kippahs—I’d bet Turner and Perry were the only two non-Jews up there—who stood in front of a blue curtain and the flags of the United States and Israel. The room was faux-classical, with marble columns, on the second floor of the sorta-hip W hotel on Manhattan’s Union Square. There were no metal detectors, but obvious bodyguards stood on either side of the front of the room. Perry emerged with several of the other luminaries, and they greeted the supporters as though we, the press, weren’t there; we were complicit in the pageant.
“NOTE: Gov. Perry frequently deviates from prepared remarks,” the printed remarks begin, but he mostly stuck to them. You can read them all over the Internet. They mostly echoed his op-ed last week: Israel is “our oldest and strongest democratic ally in the Middle East.” His critiques of the Obama administration are actually mainly tactical, but with force of rhetoric they turn into attacks on values: the call for the settlement freeze, the “indirect negotiations” (remember those?), were not just pragmatically counterproductive (which even supporters of the president would likely admit), he said, but substantive betrayals. And: “It was wrong for this Administration to suggest the 1967 borders should be the starting point.” And: A Palestinian move at the U.N. should not only threaten U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority but, if the U.N. approves it, U.S. funding to the U.N. Perry also called for the closing of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington, D.C. Loudest applause was reserved for the words “Jewish state” and the insistence that Gilad Shalit must be freed.
I wouldn’t put too much stock in a line from the question-and-answer period: “I also, as a Christian, have a clear directive to support Israel.” While I don’t doubt he believes that, it came as a response to a leading question, and was preceded by a reiteration of what he sees as his moral and strategic imperative to support Israel. He seemed to support moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but phrased this in a way that left wiggle room: “And as the president of the United States,” he told a questioner,” if you wanna work for State, you will be working in Jerusalem.” The main takeaway for me, rather, was the startling degree to which, aided by foreign political actors, he lit into his own commander-in-chief. If a Democrat ever did what Perry did this morning to a Republican, there would be hell to pay.
“Israel’s security is critical to America’s security,” Perry declared, his own sort of linkage. Here he cited its attacks on nuclear sites in Iraq, in 1981, and in Syria, in 2007. This is a strong argument, as it casts U.S. support for Israel as something about more than values and something that should appeal not only to Jewish voters but to all Americans. Later, he added, Israel’s “existence is critical to America’s security in the world.”
He further knocked Obama for having “fumbled” Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution, maybe his most purely neocon moment. “America was wasting precious time on a naïve policy of outreach.”
Indeed, the two leitmotifs through the speech were that Obama is naïve and that the Palestinians should be condemned for going against the spirit of the Oslo Accords. Everyone loves the Oslo Accords now! Time was, the right hated them. You could argue the about-face is purely cynical and contingent. You could also argue it reflects a broader realization that, in the long run, demographic and diplomatic realities mean that time is not on Israel’s side.
Oh, and Perry. He is tall. He has quite a head of hair. He pronounces nuclear “nukular,” like our last president did. But, despite being a much more authentic Texan than George W. Bush, he has less of a drawl. He also comes across very impressively in person. It’s not just charisma (although boy is it that). He seems like he is intelligent.
Next was MK Danny Danon, the Likudnik who is deputy Knesset speaker. He is most closely associated with a bill to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and while he had no trouble referring to “Judea and Samaria,” someone had pretty clearly told him not to bring annexation up, presumably because Perry isn’t down with so extreme a step. The closest he came was: “Israel will protect the Jewish communities.” He also cited Oslo a lot. I guarantee you he hates Oslo! Annexation is also against the spirit of Oslo! But again, the main takeaway is that a lot of this is Obama’s fault: a “lack of leadership coming from the White House” is to blame for the tensions with Turkey and with Iran’s continuing its nuclear weapons program. “If Iran became nuclear,” Danon warned, “there is no guarantee that it will attack only Israel.”
A couple others spoke, including Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Union, who scrupulously noted that the OU does not endorse candidates. Then came Bob Turner, the Republican who just won the New York ninth congressional district’s special election. He was honest! He barely pretended to know about the issues—which, as Ben Jacobs reported in Tablet Magazine, he basically doesn’t—and instead relayed, “I am the message”—the message from the Jews of the Ninth that they are definitively dissatisfied with Obama’s Israel policies. He had his hands in his pockets most of the time. He was unpolished. He was a politician there to thank a few new friends who had gotten him elected, and who could blame him?
Speaking of, Turner introduced Hikind, who shouted a lot and praised Perry and basically called President Abbas a terrorist. This “proud Demcrat” was admirably candid: “You can’t be right on everything and wrong on Israel—we will not support you.” Oh, except Hikind had cast his support for Turner over David Weprin as being related to gay marriage, so, no, he’s actually just a gigantic hypocrite.
Question-time! Politico’s Ben Smith asked the question that most needed to be asked: does Perry’s appearance with Danon connote support for Danon’s plan to annext Jewish settlements, which he has this week attempted to tie to the U.N. goings-on? “I don’t know the deputy speaker’s position,” Perry dodged. “I do support a two-state solution, only [through] direct negotiations, and under no other circumstance.”
Perry moved into soft-spoken mode. He really is very good. He seems serious without being a dolt or without seeming like he’s faking it. The bad grades line of attack is not going to work once the American people get to know him. “I hope you will tell the people of Israel that help is on the way,” was the GOP front-runner’s last big line.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.