Never was his longstanding connection to Israel clearer than Tuesday, when he held a press conference with pro-Israel hardliners in New York City, against the loaded backdrop of the coming push at the United Nations for Palestinian statehood.
“It is time to change our policy of appeasement toward the Palestinians to strengthen our ties to the nation of Israel, and in the process establish a robust American position in the Middle East characterized by a new firmness and a new resolve,” Perry said, criticizing President Obama as lax in his approach.
“As a Christian, I have a clear directive to support Israel, so from my perspective it’s pretty easy,” he said when asked about any theological implications of his support for Israel. “Both as an American and as a Christian, I am going to stand with Israel.”
Yet if Perry has essentially become a Zionist over the years, he’s one without many American Jews surrounding him.
At best, he’s had a minimalist relationship with national Jewish groups, multiple sources said: until he began meeting with top Jewish leaders over the past week, his outreach had rarely gone beyond Texas borders. At a moment of intense focus on the small Jewish vote and an influential group of Jewish donors, Perry is still struggling to translate his interest into Jewish votes as he seeks to explain his views on both Israel and his own faith.
“The Jewish community often has had questions about some things he says,” said Alan Sager, a former county GOP chairman in Texas who is Jewish and who has known Perry for years. That includes, he said, things like the massive August day of prayer Perry set up long before he decided to run for president.
“My wife, both of [us]…don’t see any problem with what he’s done. It’s fine with me. He can be whatever he wants about his religion,” Sager said. “But that’s obviously not the prevailing feeling in the Jewish community.”
Perry’s focus on Israel is a reflection of the small nation’s ever larger role in Republican politics—evangelical Christians and defense hawks care deeply about Israel’s well being, enough to make a pilgrimage there an all-but-requisite stop in a GOP presidential primary. Yet the governor’s interest in the issue predates his presidential ambitions, tracking back two decades to early in his career when he made trade missions to Israel as Texas agricultural commissioner.
He referred to those trips, which began in 1991, on his first outing in New Hampshire in August when he was approached by a pro-Israel voter.
“I love Israel,” Perry said, lingering on each word. “I lead trade missions to Israel.”
During a 2009 visit there, he focused on his personal history in the Jewish state.
“We have a connection that goes back many years,” Perry said at the time, according to the Jerusalem Post. “And Israel has a lot that we can learn from, especially in the areas of water conservation and semi-arid land – Israeli technology has helped us a lot in dealing with drought.”