SDEROT, Israel | Standing in front of a pile of exploded rocket shells that have rained down on this border town from inside the Gaza Strip, Sen. Barack Obama defended Israel’s retaliatory strikes on Palestinians as he tried to assuage American-Jewish concerns about the steadfastness of his support for Israel.
The Democratic presidential candidate again tried to explain his position on Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s undivided capital. He said he wouldn’t expect Israel to negotiate with Hamas, which the United States and European Union consider a terrorist group, and called a nuclear Iran “our single most important threat.”
“If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. I would expect Israelis to do the same thing,” he said shortly after meeting with Eliza and Pincas Amar and their three daughters, whose one-floor house was destroyed by a Qassam rocket that Hamas fired in December.
At a news conference, Mr. Obama brushed aside a question on whether he had backed off his statement last month that Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Israel. Palestinians also lay claim to the ancient city.
“I continued to say that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel. And I have said that before and I will say it again. And I also have said that it is important that we don’t simply slice the city in half. But I’ve also said that that’s a final-status issue,” he said.
Addressing questions about his strategy to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he said, “A nuclear Iran would be a game-changing situation not only in the Middle East, but around the world.”
In the U.S., the campaign of Mr. Obama’s Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, noted that the Democrat pledged exactly one year earlier to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions.
“The international community is united in the belief that Iran must halt the production of reprocessing nuclear material,” said McCain senior foreign policy adviser Kori Schake. “Senator Obama plans to unilaterally relax that condition, thereby undercutting the very multilateral approach he claims his policies are designed to produce.”
She called his position an example “of Senator Obama not understanding the consequences of his policy choices.”
Mr. Obama said his remarks represent “no shift in policy” but that he “phrased it poorly” to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Randy Scheunemann, a McCain senior foreign policy adviser, ridiculed Mr. Obama’s evolving stance on Jerusalem. “Presumably at least some of his 300 foreign policy advisers worked on drafting and vetting his speech to AIPAC,” Mr. Scheunemann said. “Barack Obama’s various positions and unconvincing explanations cannot give Israelis or Americans much comfort about his ability to understand and explain, much less lead, on complicated diplomatic issues.”
Mr. Obama’s agenda followed a carefully choreographed script, and his visit to Sderot was the centerpiece of a whirlwind day of meetings, photo opportunities and briefings that stretched from Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank to a helicopter flight southward toward Gaza.
The trip, intended to bolster the senator’s foreign policy credentials back home, also has exposed the Democratic nominee to the perspectives of regional decision makers, including those who were displeased about his comments on Jerusalem.
The Israel-Palestinian leg of Mr. Obama’s weeklong trip abroad is seen as key to winning the votes of American Jews, a small but influential bloc. The first-term senator’s short resume on foreign policy, combined with a perception that his approach toward the Arab-Israeli conflict would be more balanced than the unqualified favoritism of the Bush administration for Israel, has stirred speculation in American-Jewish circles about a retrenchment in the “special” relationship between the allies.
Mr. Obama sought to spell out unequivocal support for Israel and emphasized that he would make Israel-Arab negotiations a top priority. It was a jab at the Bush administration, which is criticized for having ignored talks until its final years.