WASHINGTON - President Bush yesterday used a high-profile speech in Israel to attack the idea of pursuing diplomatic talks with renegade countries such as Iran, a key element of Barack Obama's agenda, likening it to the failed appeasement of Germany prior to World War II.
"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 said in a speech to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem.
Bush did not mention the Democratic frontrunner by name and the White House officially denied that Bush was referring to Obama. But White House officials indicated that the criticism applied to Obama, who has said that as president he would rely on greater diplomacy to improve relations with unfriendly nations.
Obama responded immediately and angrily, saying in a statement: "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 intercontinental exchange between a junior Illinois senator and the sitting president confirmed Obama's new status as his party's standard-bearer - and Bush's willingness to defend his foreign policy in the midst of the campaign to replace him.
"We have heard this foolish delusion before," Bush said. "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."
Bush apparently referred to the words of William Borah, an Idaho Republican who sought his party's presidential nomination in 1936. Bush used the anniversary celebration to testify to a continued American-Israeli alliance against terrorism and rogue states, and implicitly to dismiss his domestic political opponents as a potential obstacle to those goals.
While Bush's remarks were consistent with views expressed by his administration before, the location and timing provoked a furor.
"I can't imagine there's a precedent for a sitting president to go before the legislative body of a foreign government and launch a political attack on a major-party nominee running to succeed him," said Brian P. Murphy, a fellow in American history at the University of Pennsylvania.
The White House professed not to understand Obama's ire. "There are many who have suggested these types of negotiations with people that the president, President Bush, thinks that we should not talk to," said press secretary Dana Perino. "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."
Obama has regularly criticized the Bush administration for refusing to engage unfriendly nations diplomatically. Last July, rival Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton called Obama's position "irresponsible and frankly naïve" after he said at a debate among Democratic candidates that he would be willing to meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea and Cuba without preconditions.
"The reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them - which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration - is ridiculous," Obama said during the debate.
Even though he was not named by Bush yesterday, prominent Democrats rushed to defend Obama throughout the day, including some who are neutral in the race.
Even Clinton, who has used the issue as a point of contrast with Obama, called Bush's remarks in Israel "offensive and outrageous."
Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, a former presidential candidate, offered an expletive when first asked about it; later he described Bush's remarks as "purely raw politics beneath the president," and a "long-distance Swift Boating," a reference to Republican attacks in 2004 against Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry's military record in Vietnam.
"For this White House, partisan politics now begins at the water's edge," said Representative Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "Does the president have no shame?"
Arizona Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee who has criticized Obama's views on diplomacy in the past as evidence of poor judgment, appeared to accept Bush's historical analogy but refused to label Obama directly as an "appeaser."
"This does bring up an issue that we will be discussing with the American people and that is why does Barack Obama, Senator Obama, want to sit down with a state sponsor of terrorism?" he told reporters in Columbus, Ohio.
McCain delivered a speech laying the goals of his presidency that emphasized the need for bipartisan cooperation, but it was overshadowed to a degree by the long-distance dispute between Bush and Obama.
The controversy followed recent criticism of former President Jimmy Carter for meeting with leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian movement that the US State Department has listed as a terrorist organization.
Although Obama has said he would not meet with Hamas until it recognized Israel's right to exist and abandoned violence, he has faced criticism from some Jewish organizations for his willingness to meet with hostile governments in the Mideast.
Obama has lost the Jewish vote to Clinton in some key recent primary contests, and polls indicate that Obama cannot count on the traditionally overwhelming Jewish support for the Democratic presidential nominee.
"Our electoral politics with regard to foreign policy are vicious, and always have been," said Murphy. "But leaving the country and suggesting to an ally that our foreign policy is going to be crippled by someone in his own government - it's something that would have been inconceivable to earlier generations of presidents."