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Obama talks to JTA

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama speaks at a town-hall meeting in Harrisburg on April 4, 2008, just weeks before Pennsylvania's presidential primary. (Obama for America)

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama speaks at a town-hall meeting in Harrisburg on April 4, 2008, just weeks before Pennsylvania’s presidential primary. (Obama for America)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – An Obama administration would cultivate close relations with Israel, but also would hear out elements that stir unease among many American Jewish groups – including the Iranian leadership and those calling for more balance in U.S. mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“My belief is that Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East, one of our strongest allies anywhere in the world,” U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said Wednesday in a wide-ranging exclusive interview with JTA during which he addressed many of the issues that have dogged his campaign among Jewish Americans.

Even as he repeatedly stressed his support for the U.S.-Israeli alliance as the unshakable starting point of his Middle East approach, the Democratic presidential contender insisted that both the Israelis and the Palestinians must be accountable in progressing toward peace and said he would more actively engage in that arena than President Bush.

“I don’t consider myself in any camp other than the common sense camp,” he said when asked if he favors those who see the Israel alliance as uppermost or those who advocate greater balance. “It is dangerously simplistic to think that our only options with respect to U.S. foreign policy are to be unquestioning in our approach to Israel-Palestinian relations or alternatively to fail to recognize the special relationship and the historic friendship and bonds that exist between the United States and Israel.”

As he did during a meeting in February with Jewish communal leaders in Cleveland, Obama voiced admiration for the Israeli people’s ability to conduct a “robust” debate over issues regarding peace and security.

Despite aggressive efforts by conservative pundits and Web sites to cast him as a political unkown with advisers and mentors hostile to Israel, Obama has done well among Jewish Democrats in his primary battles with U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

A recent Gallup Poll found Jews favoring Clinton 48 percent to 43 percent – a gap falling within the margin of error. That represents a much better showing than many had expected from Obama, a relative newcomer who, beyond his home state, cannot match his rival’s longer and deeper ties to the Jewish community.

Obama’s comments come as polls show him gaining on Clinton among the Democratic electorate in Pennsylvania, where Jewish voters and politicians are seen as playing an important role in the state’s April 22 primary.

“My whole campaign is premised on the belief that people are decent and generous and people want to get beyond some of the old animosities of the past,” Obama told JTA. “Obviously the only way I could win would be to put together the kind of coalition I put together back in Illinois, and the Jewish community has always been the heart and center of that coalition.”

The senator did not shy away from a defense of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., his former pastor whose closeness to positions and individuals considered anathema to Jews has stirred controversy, or from his insistence on reaching out to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and listening closely to Palestinian complaints.

The U.S. role “requires listening to both sides and talking to both sides,” Obama said. “That requires that we don’t dismiss out of hand the concerns of the Palestinians because there’s no way we can move forward in those negotiations without at least understanding their perspective.”

Obama was asked about the views of Daniel Kurtzer, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel who before joining the Obama team as an adviser, co-wrote a book recently on negotiating Israeli-Arab peace. In the book, Kurtzer advocated sanctioning Israel if it does not keep its agreements, saying Jerusalem has not paid a price for failing to dismantle unauthorized outpost settlements as it had promised in recent years.

“It is important if we’re going to make progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks that both sides are held accountable to previous agreements,” Obama said. “I think that the failure to abide by previous agreements has occurred more consistently on the Palestinian side, particularly as it pertains to reining in violence.”

For a settlement to be reached, Obama said, Palestinians must make great strides in recognizing Israel’s security needs and abandon the goal of an unfettered right of return for Palestinians that would undermine Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

Israel, on the other hand, will have to “acknowledge that it’s going to have to make some territorial modifications to ensure that there is a stable and contiguous Palestinian state that can function, and ultimately that Palestinian children have opportunities to thrive like children anywhere else,” he said.

Obama hewed to his insistence that he would meet with Ahmadinejad and other pariah leaders – perhaps his most substantive foreign policy difference with Clinton. The Iranian leader has denied the Holocaust and expressed wishes that Israel would disappear.

“Nobody has to persuade me that Ahmadinejad is in many ways reprehensible in his views,” Obama said. “A simple diplomatic gesture of direct talks can actually strengthen the hands of moderates. A belligerent tone for Iran empowers the hard-liners in Iran. It becomes more difficult for those who want to be part of the international community to persuade their fellow Iranians that the United States is not determined to invade or engage in regime change.”

In contrast to his position on Iran, Obama repeated his support of the view advanced by Washington, Jerusalem and the pro-Israel lobby that Hamas will not be a legitimate negotiating partner until it recognizes Israel, abandons terrorism and agrees to honor previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

The difference, Obama says, is that Ahmadinejad is the president of a sovereign nation.

“Hamas is not the head of a state. I think that’s a very clear distinction,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that we meet with every head of an organization, particularly one that has pursued such odious policies as Hamas has.”

In fact, Hamas won elections in 2006 and its leader, Ismail Haniyeh, became prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. Later, in a move supported by the Bush administration, Haniyeh was deposed by P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas following Hamas’ violent ouster of Fatah from the Gaza Strip. But Hamas remains in control of Gaza and Haniyeh is still referred to there as prime minister.

Obama would not budge in his position on Wright, criticizing his most inflammatory rhetoric while saying that it was a small part of his record as a preacher in the Chicago church where he served as the senator’s pastor for two decades.

“The characterization of him that appears with the press is not a picture of what his ministry’s been about,” said Obama, who was attracted to Wright’s Trinity United church in part because of the message of self help he preached to African Americans. “Prior to this controversy he was widely regarded as one of the pre-eminent preachers in this country, and certainly of one of the largest and most active churches in Chicago.

“It doesn’t excuse the statements that were made, it’s just simply to indicate it’s not as if there was a statement like this coming up every Sunday when I was at church.”

In response to a question, Obama said a Jewish campaigner had passed along a Haggadah in advance of Passover and invited him to a seder on April 19, although the candidate did not say if he would attend.

“The seder is one of my favorite occasions,” Obama said. “It’s so important to tell stories that tie history of the past to our moral obligations in the present.”

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