By Patricia Wilson
LAKE WORTH, Fla. (Reuters) - Democrat John Kerry on Monday voiced unwavering support for special U.S. ties with Israel and vowed to end "sweetheart relationships" with Arab countries like Saudi Arabia that he said funded terror.
Courting the Jewish vote in Florida, the state at the center of the disputed 2000 election, the presumptive Democratic nominee cited a report that President Bush and his senior advisers made "a secret White House deal" with the Saudis to deliver lower gas prices.
"Last night ... it was reported that in the Oval Office discussion around whether to invade Iraq that the president, the vice president (Dick Cheney), the secretary of defense (Donald Rumsfeld) made a deal with Saudi Arabia that would deliver lower gas prices," Kerry told a town hall meeting in Lake Worth.
"But here's the catch," he said. "The American people would have to wait until the election, until November of 2004."
Journalist Bob Woodward, author of a new book titled, "Plan of Attack," also said in a CBS' "60 Minutes" interview that Bush gave national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Cheney and Rumsfeld permission to tell Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan of his decision to go to war in Iraq before informing Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"Now, if this sounds wrong to you, that's because it is fundamentally wrong and if what Bob Woodward reports is true -- that gas supplies and prices in America are tied to the American election, then tied to a secret White House deal -- that is outrageous and unacceptable," Kerry said.
Kerry stressed his pro-Israel voting record over almost two decades representing Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate.
"I have a 100 percent record -- not a 99, a 100 percent record -- of sustaining the special relationship and friendship that we have with Israel," he told an earlier fund-raiser in Juno Beach.
Kerry, a Roman Catholic whose paternal grandfather was Jewish, campaigned with Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000 and the first Jew on a major party ticket.
Offering a guarantee he would maintain the close U.S.-Israel relationship if he were elected president on Nov. 2, Kerry said: "I understand not just how we do that, but also how we end this sweetheart relationship with a bunch of Arab countries that still allow money to move to Hamas and Hezbollah and Al Aqsa Brigade."
He did not mention any countries by name, but spokesman David Wade said he was referring to Saudi Arabia.
Kerry said the United States needed a president "who's prepared to stand up and lead the world to a more responsible place, to create an entity to make peace with in the Middle East."
Kerry has questioned the Bush administration's ties to Saudi Arabia -- particularly the energy relationship. Bush is a former Texas oilman and Cheney headed Halliburton, the Texas-based oil services giant and the leading logistics contractor for the U.S. military in Iraq.
The Saudi government has said it is cracking down on terrorist financing and that Riyadh has fully joined the United States in its war on terrorism.
Despite his dispute with Bush on Saudi Arabia, Kerry supported the president's new position that Israel should be allowed to keep part of the land it seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Kerry campaign aides fear that Bush's position on West Bank settlements could siphon off the votes of Jewish Democrats.
Kerry and Lieberman appeared in Palm Beach County where confusing ballots were said to have cost Democrats thousands of votes in 200O.