- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

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.

“I believe it is strongly in the interest of Israel to arrive at a lasting peace with the Palestinian people,” he said in Sderot. “A vast majority of Israelis understand that it is going to be hard to achieve true security if there are still hostile neighbors just a few miles away.”

Mr. Obama met Wednesday with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

The senator from Illinois is little known among Israelis, who see Mr. McCain as a leader who would continue the pro-Israel policies of the current administration. Still, a poll shows Jewish Americans prefer Mr. Obama to Mr. McCain by 2-to-1, though the margin lags that held by Sen. John Kerry in 2004 and Vice President Al Gore in 2000 against George W. Bush.

Striking a contrast with Mr. McCain’s visit in March, Mr. Obama’s entourage trekked through Israeli army West Bank roadblocks and the Israeli walled separation barrier to Ramallah, where they were escorted by dozens of camouflaged security forces with semiautomatic rifles to meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad.

Palestinians expressed disappointment with Mr. Obama’s pro-Israeli views, but Israel Radio quoted sources close to Mr. Abbas saying the candidate’s comments are a function of election-year politics.

“No president has come and set his own policies,” said Fouad Quara’in, a supermarket owner from Ramallah. “It is standard policy of the U.S. to support Israel, and therefore we do not expect much from Obama.”

At the Sderot police station, where Mr. Obama held his press conference with three senior Cabinet ministers, the national police chief and the mayor by his side, Mrs. Livni, who said the candidate’s visit to the embattled town sent a message to Hamas rulers in the Gaza Strip.

“It is that terror is terror is terror. That there is not just cause for terror,” she said. “This is the message that those who control the Gaza Strip need to understand.”

In the past year, Sderot has taken a place alongside Israel’s Holocaust memorial as a part of unspoken diplomatic protocol for visiting foreign dignitaries, including Mr. McCain. But it wasn’t until the Obama visit, locals said, that the municipality flew foreign flags on Sderot’s gateway road to welcome the guest of honor.

Mr. Obama drew a line of comparison between the shelling of Sderot to the “terrorist” bulldozer rampage in Jerusalem, to the rearming of Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Iran.

Though Israelis are thought to be partial to Mr. McCain, locals said that Sderot, a blue-collar town, feels a kinship with Mr. Obama because he comes from outside of the American elite.

“He knows what pain and distress is - things they don’t know about from above,” said Yaffa Malka, a 44-year-old hairdresser. “He knows what it is like to be part of a people who is not liked. A person like that understands that peace and compassion need to be a top priority.”

Mr. Obama said he stood by Israel’s refusal to negotiate with Hamas.

“It is very hard to negotiate with a group that is not representative of a nation state, does not recognize your right to exist, has consistently used terror as a weapon and is deeply influenced by other countries,” he said.

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