WASHINGTON - George W. Bush accused the Clinton administration yesterday of interfering in Israel's internal affairs, charging the White House with backing Ehud Barak over Benjamin Netanyahu in Israeli elections last year.
"In recent times, Washington has tried to make Israel conform to its own plans and timetables," the likely Republican presidential nominee told a powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization.
"A clear and bad example was the administration's attempt to take sides in the most recent Israeli election. America should not interfere in Israel's democratic process, and America will not interfere in Israeli elections when I'm president," he said.
The remarks, which drew the loudest applause of any lines delivered in Bush's 15-minute speech to the American Israel Political Affairs Committee, were immediately attacked by the campaign of Vice President Al Gore, the presumed Democratic standard-bearer.
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane, who denied White House interference in Israeli politics, said Bush had "irresponsibly tried to politicize" the issue of peace in the Mideast.
"Al Gore's leadership credentials on facilitating the Middle East peace process are impeccable, while Bush is suffering from an antiquated analysis," Lehane said.
In two Israeli elections, President Clinton has been widely viewed as preferring that country's more-dovish Labor Party over the conservative Likud.
During the Israeli campaign four years ago, Clinton appeared with Prime Minister Shimon Peres in Israel and the United States, often repeating Labor Party campaign rhetoric. Peres lost to Likud candidate Benjamin Netanyahu.
In last year's contest between Netanyahu and Labor's Ehud Barak, Barak's advisers included three political pros who had played key roles in Clinton's election to the presidency: James Carville, Robert Shrum and Stanley Greenberg.
Gore was scheduled to address the American Israel Political Affairs Committee this morning. His positions on Israel differ little, if any, from Bush's.
Yesterday, Bush assured the annual policy conference of continued support by a Bush administration for Israel's security and the Middle East peace process. He also said he favored moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as a way of recognizing Israel's claim to that city as its capital.
Clinton opposes the highly symbolic move, contending that it would disrupt the Middle East peace process.
Israel is the No. 1 recipient of U.S. foreign aid, having received about $70 billion over the last half-century.
Bush promised that the U.S.-Israeli relationship would continue to be strong - regardless of whether Israel makes peace with Syria, the Palestinians and other hostile neighbors.
"My support for Israel is not conditional on the peace process," he said. "America's special relationship with Israel precedes the peace process.
"And Israel's adversaries should know that in my administration, the special relationship will continue even if they cannot bring themselves to make true peace with the Jewish state."
Without explicitly mentioning it, Bush managed to remind the audience of his father's campaign to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War.
Remarking that "the distance between Israel and Saddam Hussein's Iraq is only 250 miles," Bush intentionally mispronounced the Iraqi leader's name, rhyming it with "Adam." In doing so, he repeated the famous mispronunciation of his father and invoked images of President George Bush commanding U.S. forces during the gulf war and defanging Iraq, a major threat to Israel.
The American Israel Political Affairs Committee meeting in Washington offered a new reminder yesterday that Mideast peace remains elusive. Barak was to have addressed delegates yesterday, but he canceled his U.S. visit at the last minute to deal with continuing clashes between Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank.