By Dan Balz and Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 24, 2008
JERUSALEM, July 24 -- Sen. Barack Obama stepped gingerly through the intractable politics of the Middle East on Wednesday, offering resolute support for Israel's security, warning that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a "game-changing" event for the world, and pledging to make peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians one of his highest priorities if he becomes president.
By motorcade and helicopter, in private meetings and public appearances, the Democratic candidate moved from the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah to the southern Israeli town of Sderot just outside the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Palestinian gunmen in Gaza have long fired makeshift rockets at Sderot, typically after Israeli military operations in the strip or the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Obama used Sderot's police station and a backdrop of racks of spent Qassam rockets to declare his "unshakable commitment to Israel's security." He added: "The state of Israel faces determined enemies who seek its destruction. But it also has a friend and ally in the United States that will always stand by the people of Israel."
Obama's busy day in Israel, followed by a pre-dawn visit Thursday to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, concluded the Middle East and Asia part of his trip overseas. After four days in Afghanistan and Iraq, a day in Jordan and another in Israel, the presumptive Democratic nominee will turn his focus to Europe. He was to fly to Berlin on Thursday morning and hold the biggest public event of his tour at Tiergarten Park in the evening. A huge crowd is expected.
With an eye to Jewish voters back in the United States and to public opinion here, Obama defended himself Wednesday as a staunch and longtime friend of Israel and said he has a voting record that proves it. "The way you know where somebody's going is where have they been," he said. "And I've been with Israel for many, many years now."
The Illinois Democrat has faced skepticism among some Jewish voters in the United States over whether he would be a reliable supporter of Israel, and he is viewed quizzically as well by many Israelis, who don't know quite what to make of his unusual name and his slim track record in foreign policy.
At the Western Wall, the holiest place in Judaism, dozens of people cheered Obama, who was wearing a white skullcap, and reached out to shake his hand. But one man heckled him by repeating, "Obama, Jerusalem is not for sale!"
Obama's statements of support for the Jewish state have gone over well in Israel, but there is widespread apprehension that he will be more sympathetic to Palestinian interests than previous American presidents have been. His Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, is better known here and seen as a more dependable protector of the country's interests. McCain visited Israel this spring, also stopping in Sderot.
Obama again clarified a statement he made to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in June, when he declared that he supported making Jerusalem the "undivided" capital of Israel. That comment drew sharp protest from Palestinians, and Obama quickly corrected the statement at the time, saying that by undivided he meant a city not carved up by barbed wire as it was at one time.
"That's an issue that has to be dealt with with the parties involved, the Palestinians and the Israelis," he said in Sderot. "And it's not the job of the United States to dictate the form in which that will take, but rather to support the efforts that are being made right now to resolve these very difficult issues that have a long history."
Obama's day was a succession of meetings with top Israeli and Palestinian officials, interspersed with his few public events. He met over dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but before that he had already seen President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
He also took time for the short drive north to Ramallah for face-to-face meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the hour-long meeting with Abbas went well, with Obama mostly listening as Abbas briefed him on the state of negotiations with Israel.
The trip to Ramallah took Obama past the system of checkpoints and barrier walls that Israel has built in what it says is an effort to thwart suicide bombers and other would-be attackers from the West Bank. Security was tight.
In Sderot, Obama said he would assign a high priority to the peace talks. Implicitly critical of the Bush administration, Obama said he would not wait until years into his presidency to tackle the Middle East issue. "I think we have a window right now that needs to be taken advantage of," he said.
Obama appeared anxious to deliver a stern message about Iran, a topic that was raised in his meetings with Israeli leaders. "A nuclear Iran would be a game-changing situation not just in the Middle East, but around the world," he said. "That could shred the nuclear proliferation framework and possibly allow terrorists to get their hands on such weapons."
Netanyahu said after his meeting with Obama: "We agreed that the greatest priority in our foreign policy is that both countries must prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons."
Obama said he would try to "mobilize the international community, to offer a series of big sticks and big carrots to the Iranian regime to stand down on nuclear weapons. We have to do it now."
A year ago, the candidate had said in a Democratic debate that he was prepared to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions, a comment that rattled Israelis. Obama was asked Wednesday whether any of his meetings had prompted him to rethink that.
Without directly answering, he explained that what he had tried to say at the debate was that the United States should not be afraid to talk to hostile nations if it could advance U.S. security interests. McCain's campaign accused Obama of rewriting history as to his original pledge.
Although Obama received a red-carpet welcome from Israeli and Palestinian politicians, much of the public on both sides was only dimly aware of his presence.
On the streets of Ramallah, residents said that while they appreciated the fact that Obama had visited the West Bank, they had few illusions about the overall purpose of the trip. "He needs to show that he is supportive of the Israelis in order to win the votes of the Americans," said Salah al-Jabsha, a 35-year-old accountant.
Special correspondents Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem and Sufian Taha in Ramallah and staff researcher Madonna Lebling in Washington contributed to this report.