JERUSALEM -- President Bush used a speech to the Israeli parliament yesterday to liken those who would negotiate with "terrorists and radicals" to appeasers of Nazis - a remark widely interpreted as a rebuke to Sen. Barack Obama, who has advocated greater engagement with countries like Iran and Syria.
Bush did not mention Obama by name, and White House officials said he was not taking aim at the Illinois senator, though they were aware the speech might be interpreted that way. The comments set off an angry tussle back home, as Democrats accused Bush of breaching protocol by playing partisan politics overseas.
The episode placed Bush squarely in one of the most divisive debates of the campaign to succeed him, as Republicans try to portray Obama as weak in the fight against terrorism. It also underscored what the White House has said will be an aggressive effort by Bush to use his presidential platform to influence the presidential race.
"Some seem to believe that 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 otherwise devoted to Israel's friendship with the United States. "We have an obligation to call this what it is - the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."
Obama delivered a quick and pointed response, saying in an e-mail to reporters that he had no intention of dealing with terrorists and accusing Bush of using his visit, timed for the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence, to "launch a false political attack."
In an interview this week with a New York Times columnist, David Brooks, Obama addressed the criticism more directly. "I constantly reject this notion that any hint of strategies involving diplomacy are somehow soft or indicate surrender or means that you are not going to crack down on terrorism," Obama said.
Yesterday, other Democrats quickly leapt to Obama's defense. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, called Bush's remarks "reckless and irresponsible." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Bush had behaved in a manner "beneath the dignity of the office of president." Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the chairman of the House Democratic caucus, accused Bush of violating the unwritten rule against playing politics overseas.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's rival, joined him in taking issue with Bush. Speaking in South Dakota, she said: "President Bush's comparison of any Democrat to Nazi appeasers is offensive and outrageous, especially in the light of his failures in foreign policy. This is the kind of statement that has no place in any presidential address."
For Obama, the stakes in the clash are high. American Jews and Israelis view him with some suspicion, for several reasons. First, Obama has said he would meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who has called Israel "a stinking corpse" and denies its right to exist.
Second, an official of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, has expressed hope for the Obama candidacy. (Obama has rejected that statement and refers to Hamas as a terrorist group.) In addition, Obama's advisers include Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former White House national security adviser who some Jews believe has an anti-Israel tilt.
Speaking with reporters here, Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, said the comment had not been a reference to Obama and Bush was simply reiterating his own long-standing views.