As his Mideast tour continues, Sen. Barack Obama reiterated his support for Israel as an ally of the United States Wednesday and focused on his commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The Democratic presidential candidate called a nuclear-armed Iran a “grave” threat and “single-most important” threat to the security of Israel and the United States.
“I will take no options off the table in dealing with this potential Iranian threat. A nuclear Iran would be a game-changing situation — not just in the Middle East, but around the world,” Obama said. “Whatever remains of nuclear nonproliferation would disintegrate. You would have countries in the Middle East who would see the potential need to also obtain nuclear weapons. Many of these countries have ties to terrorist organization.”
The senator spoke to reporters in Sderot, a town a mile from Gaza that has been the target of rocket attacks from Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls that Gaza Strip.
“We stand with the people of Sderot and all the people of Israel. Israelis should not have to live endangered in their homes and their schools. America must always stand up for Israel’s right to defend itself against those who threaten its people.”
Mentioning Hamas, Obama said the group’s leaders faced a decision on whether to become a “serious political party” by recognizing Israel’s right to exist and renouncing terrorism. Hamas, labeled as a terrorist organization by the United States, continues to hold onto its rule of the Gaza Strip. The West Bank remains under the control of Fatah.
Obama said that as president, he would begin working to promote peace in the Middle East but would not dictate policy to either Israeli or Palestinian leaders.
“I can tell you one thing that is very important: a U.S. administration has to put its weight behind a process, recognizing that it’s not going to happen immediately. That’s why I will not wait a few years into my term to get the process moving. I think we have a window right now that needs to be taken advantage of,” Obama said.
The speech gave the Democratic candidate the chance to appeal to influential Jewish voters. Obama highlighted his continued support for Israel, reminding reporters that his voting record and statements stand by Israel’s right to defend itself.
In a speech in Washington, D.C., last month to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby,, Obama told the group he would keep Jerusalem as the capital and that the city would be divided. Obama later said the statement about division was “badly phrased.”
On Tuesday, Obama said of Jerusalem: “That’s an issue that has to be dealt with the parties involved, the Palestinians and the Israelis, and it is 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.”
Reporters also questioned Obama about his response in a debate last year that he would meet personally, without preconditions, with leaders of Iran and other hostile nations during his first year in office to resolve differences, the Associated Press reported.
That statement sparked criticism from then-rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, as well as the likely Republican candidate Sen. John McCain.
“I think that what I said in response was that at my time and choosing would be willing to meet with any leader if I thought it would promote the national security interests of America. And that continues to be my position.”
“It is very important to exhaust every possible avenue to solve this problem,” Obama continued.” What we are not willing to do is to permit a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East.”
Earlier in the day, Obama met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
In Ramallah, he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
It was Obama’s second press conference of his overseas trip after one from Jordan on Tuesday.
This time he tried to joke with reporters: “I want all of you to like me. This gentleman here will call on people. He’s going to be the bad guy.”
On Wednesday evening, before his travels take him to Europe, Obama will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.