SDEROT, Israel (JTA) – During his stops in Jordan and Israel, presidential contender Barack Obama stressed both his backing for tough Israeli security measures and his commitment to advancing the peace process.
In meetings with several Israeli leaders Wednesday, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to Israel’s struggle against terrorism and other violent threats, including Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“I don’t think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on its citizens,” Obama said during a stop Wednesday at the police station in Sderot, the Israeli city that has been deluged by rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
“If someone was sending rockets on my house where my daughters were sleeping at night, I would do everything to stop it, and I encourage Israel to do same,” addded the U.S. senator from Illinois, speaking in front of shelves filled with mangled Kassam rockets fired by Palestinian militants.
Obama’s lightning visit to Israel, part of an overseas tour that includes Europe, reflects his campaign’s strategy to bolster his credentials as a potential statesman. It’s also an effort to reach out to Jewish voters with the message that he will be an unwavering friend to Israel. Obama’s single packed day of meetings with Israel’s senior leaders included the stop in Sderot – which has become an almost mandatory pilgrimage site for visiting dignitaries to Israel – along with a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and a late night call at the Western Wall.
This week’s trip also presented Palestinian officials and several Israeli politicians who aspire to succeed Ehud Olmert as prime minister with an opportunity to forge a relationship with a possible future U.S. president – not a small thing in a country where voters place a high premium on strong ties with the United States.
In Israel there has been enthusiasm for Obama’s visit and pride that both he and Sen. John McCain , the presumptive Republican nominee for president, found it important to stop by even before the November election.
But reaction to Obama has been colored by nervousness among Israeli officials about the end of the Bush administration, which at times was seen as almost unconditionally supportive of Israel.
Reflecting Israel’s nervousness over Obama, Ha’aretz columnist Aluf Benn wrote Wednesday: “Obama represents an exciting option, albeit a more dangerous one. If he manages to rehabilitate America’s international stature, reduce its dependence on oil and push through peace between Israel and the Arabs, Israel’s strategic situation will improve dramatically. But on the way, he might have to pressure Israel. If he fails, Israel will have to pay the price without reaping any returns.”
In Israeli officialdom’s campaign to make the challenges the country faces clear, Obama was briefed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other defense experts on a Jerusalem tarmac before taking off in a Blackhawk helicopter for a strategic tour of the center and south of the country and, ultimately, Sderot.
Barak could be seen outlining to Obama on a series of maps the areas of Israel that had come under attack by Palestinians. Along with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, they boarded a helicopter and began a near hour-long journey. They started with an aerial tour of Jerusalem before flying along Israel’s border with the West Bank and then flying south via the Mediterranean.
In her remarks in Sderot, Livni thanked Obama for making the journey to the town. McCain also made a stop in Sderot during his visit to Israel two months ago.
“There is an Israeli frustration that they suffer without being recognized by the international community.,” she said of Sderot’s residents. “In your visit here, you showed that you really care.”
Obama also held a brief meeting at the King David Hotel with Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who also happened to be in Israel. His organization released a report Wednesday on editorial cartoonists in the Arab world using anti-Semitic imagery to portray the presumptive U.S. presidential candidates as pawns of the Jews.
“In terms of what I’ve heard from Israelis I’ve met, they are impressed by the depth of his knowledge and understanding,” Foxman said of Obama. “I walk away feeling more comfortable with the words that I hear, that there is a deep understanding and sensitivity to the issues here.”
In addition to discussing security issues in his meetings with Israeli leaders, Obama also talked about negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. On Tuesday in Jordan, Obama said that as president he would begin working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal from his first day in office.
“There’s a tendency for each side to focus on the faults of the other rather than look in the mirror,” Obama told reporters in Amman before heading to Israel and the West Bank. “The Israeli government is unsettled, the Palestinians are divided between Fatah and Hamas, and so it’s difficult for either side to make the bold move that would bring about peace.
“My goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I’m sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs,” he said.
In Jerusalem the next day, Obama met with Barak, President Shimon Peres and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. At Yad Vashem, he donned a white kipah and penned an entry in the visitors’ book.
“At a time of great peril and torment, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man’s potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world,” Obama wrote.
The Democratic candidate then went to Ramallah to meet with Palestinain Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. P.A. officials said Abbas briefed Obama on progress in the peace process. Obama had meetings at the end of the day with Olmert and Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupoliansky.
Israeli sources said Obama’s discussions with Barak turned to the recent launch of Turkish-mediated negotiations between Israel and Syria.
Obama, according to one source, described the efforts to achieve peace as important, but said that as president “he would never put pressure on Israel to take steps that could put its security at risk.”
The senator apparently was referring to Syria’s demand for a full return of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed.
As for Iran, Obama described the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program as “the most important challenge facing the international community right now,” Israeli sources said, adding that it would top the agenda of Obama’s meetings later this week with the leaders of Germany, France and Britain.
(JTA staff contributed to this report.)