JERUSALEM — President Bush took the occasion of Israel's 60th anniversary on Thursday to compare his American political opponents to Nazi appeasers and brand them as too willing to negotiate with terrorists, remarks that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama reacted to instantly as an attack upon him.
"We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history," Bush said in his 23-minute speech to Israel's parliament.
The president's pointed criticism appeared to be a veiled jab at Obama, who has suggested that the United States should talk with its adversaries, as well as at former President Jimmy Carter, who last month met with senior officials of the radical Palestinian group Hamas in Syria.
While the White House denied that Bush was criticizing Obama, the senator's campaign fired back immediately, calling the president's remarks an "extraordinary politicization" of U.S. foreign policy.
"It is sad that President Bush would use a speech to the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence to launch a false political attack," the Illinois senator said in a statement.
"It is time to turn the page on eight years of policies that have strengthened Iran and failed to secure America or our ally Israel. Instead of tough talk and no action, we need to do what Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan did and use all elements of American power — including tough, principled, and direct diplomacy — to pressure countries like Iran and Syria."
Obama, who's been criticized by rivals Hillary Clinton and John McCain as naive for being willing to negotiate with radical world leaders, said: "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."
Obama has said that he'd be willing to meet without preconditions with leaders of Iran, North Korea and other hostile nations that the U.S. condemns as supporting terrorism. His stance has been a key debating point in the Democratic race, as Clinton has said that she'd first use diplomatic means to contact such countries but wouldn't reward them with personal presidential engagement until they renounced their radicalism.
Bush has tried to stay out of the 2008 presidential race, and White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Thursday that he didn't mean to directly criticize Obama.
"I would think that all of you who cover these issues and have for a long time have known that there are many who have suggested these types of negotiations with people that the president ...thinks we should not talk to," she said. "I understand when you're running for office you sometimes think the world revolves around you.
"That is not always true, and it is not true in this case."
Bush made only passing reference to sluggish Israeli peace talks with Palestinian moderates and focused instead on what can be done to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.
"Permitting the world's leading sponsor of terror to possess the world's deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations," said Bush. "For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."
The speech marked the high point of Bush's second visit to Israel as president.
While Israeli leaders cheered the staunch support from the U.S. president, Palestinians marked the day they call "the catastrophe" with a moment of silence, black balloons and stone-throwing protests against Israeli soldiers.
While Bush has pushed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to the top of his agenda for his final months in office, the president largely ignored the issue in his speech.
Bush's only reference to ongoing peace talks came near the end of his speech as the president painted a vision of the Middle East in another 60 years when "the Palestinian people will have the homeland they have long dreamed of."
The politically charged nature of the talks was clear during the special session when two conservative Israeli lawmakers walked out of the chamber when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed confidence that the Knesset and most Israelis would eventually support the creation of a Palestinian state on land now occupied by Israel.
As Bush rose to spoke, three Arab-Israeli lawmakers walked out in protest.
After spending the morning with Olmert touring Masada, the ancient fortress overlooking the Dead Sea where Jewish rebels took their lives instead of surrendering to Roman forces, Bush echoed the pledge made by thousands of Israeli soldiers.
"At this historic site, Israeli soldiers swear an oath: 'Masada shall never fall again,'" Bush said. "Citizens of Israel: Masada shall never fall again, and America will always stand with you."
Bush dismissed as "a tired argument" longstanding suggestions that America's ties to Israel were the root of its problems in the Middle East.
"Israel's population may be just over 7 million," Bush said as he received a standing ovation. "But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong because America stands with you."
Bush said the United States and Israel, linked in "moral clarity," were engaged in a "great ideological struggle" in the Middle East.
"Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along," Bush said. "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."
Winning the ideological battle, Bush said, requires an alternative vision that promotes democracy, freedom of religion and tolerance.
"When leaders across the region answer to their people, they will focus their energies on schools and jobs, not on rocket attacks and suicide bombings," Bush said.
(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed from Jerusalem.)