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Obama visits Israel, Middle East

Barack Obama and Ehud BarakBy Jerusalem Post

JERUSALEM —— US Democratic presidential aspirant Barack Obama brought his campaign to Israel Tuesday evening for a whirlwind tour that Israeli diplomatic officials say was meant both to present him as a foreign policy maven and to court Jewish votes in the US.

In an interview on Channel 2 Monday night, Republican candidate John McCain repeated his tough stance on Iran, saying that more significant and painful sanctions should be clamped on Iran to get it to modify its behavior.

“I think we have a lot of options to explore before we seriously explore the military option, and I don’t think we have exercised those enough,” he said.

Asked about Israel feeling the need to attack Iran, McCain replied, “I would hope that would never happen. I would hope that Israel would not feel that threatened.” He said the US and Europe could impose “significant, very painful sanctions on Iran, which I think could modify their behavior.”

Then he added: “But I have to look you in the eye and tell you that the United States of America can never allow a second Holocaust.”

The Jewish vote is expected to be extremely important in the upcoming elections in battleground states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Nevada. According to Kory Bardash, chairman of Republicans Abroad in Israel, there are currently some 250,000 American citizens in Israel, which means about half as many Americans live in Israel as live in Wyoming.

Of this number, about 120,000 to 130,000 are eligible to vote, the rest being under 18.

Bardash said that in the last election, some 35,000 absentee ballots were cast from Israel, the most ever.

Recent polls on whom Israelis favor in the US elections gave McCain a lead of about nine percentage points.

“A nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” US Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Wednesday while visiting the rocket-stricken town of Sderot.

“Today I had a series of productive discussions with many of Israel’s key leaders about how to address the broad range of threats that Israel faces, and the broad threats that all of us face.”

Prior to his visit to the town, Obama told PA President Mahmoud Abbas that if he’s elected in November, he would work seriously to boost the peace process in the Middle East.

Obama, who met with Abbas and PA officials in Ramallah, also said that he would like to see concrete steps on the ground by both Israel and the Palestinians so as to give Palestinians a sense of hope regarding peace, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, Abbas’s spokesman, said after the meeting.

At the meeting, Abbas reiterated his commitment to the peace process and the continuation of the negotiations with Israel, Abu Rudaineh said.

The PA spokesman said that Obama came to the region only to learn about the problems and listen to the views of the different parties. PA Negotiator Saeb Erekat described the Obama-Abbas meeting as “very significant.”

He said Abbas briefed Obama on the latest developments surrounding the peace process and outlined “mechanisms” for imple-
menting the Road Map for peace in the Middle East.

He said that Abbas made it clear during the meeting that the settlements and IDF raids in the West Bank were the “main obstacle” to peace.

Abbas also demanded that the future US administration exert pressure on Israel to release Palestinian prisoners.

His meeting with the Palestinians stands in contrast to the decision by Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain to visit only Israel in March, without stopping in the West Bank.

On the road leading to Abbas’s headquarters, Palestinian police were out in full force on Wednesday, standing 10 meters apart and outfitted in full battle regalia, with camouflage uniforms, helmets, bullet- proof vests, and carrying truncheons and assault rifles.

Obama was later set to return to Jerusalem to meet Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Earlier Wednesday, Obama pledged that as president he would preserve the close ties between the US and Israel, and Israel’s security would be a top priority in his administration.

“I’m here on this trip to reaffirm the special relationship between Israel and the US and my abiding commitment to Israel’s security and my hope that I can serve as an effective partner, whether as a US senator or as president,” Obama said as he met President Shimon Peres at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.

The presidential contender praised Peres’s contribution to Israel’s development which he termed “a miracle.”

“For most of Israel’s 60 years, you have been deeply involved in this miracle that has blossomed and we are extremely grateful, not just as Americans but as world citizens, to your outstanding service to your country and the insight that you have shared with us,” said Obama, speaking alongside Peres before the meeting.

Obama bantered with the 84-year-old president about the secret of youthfulness. “I also want to get his recipe for looking as good he does,” he said.

Peres gave him an effusive welcome, saying he had read Obama’s two books and was “moved” by them. The president handed Obama an English translation of a book he wrote, The Imaginary Voyage with Theodor Herzl.

Peres urged Obama to be a great president for the sake of the battles against terror and world poverty.

Obama also held a breakfast meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the first event in a day packed with meetings and travel across Israel and the Palestinian territories.

According to a statement released by the Defense Ministry the two held a “vigorous and intense discussion touching on all the basic issues and future challenges facing Israel and the free world in the region.”

After the Barak meeting, Obama met opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu said he was impressed about Obama’s understanding of the Iranian threat and said they both agreed that a nuclear Iran was unacceptable.

The opposition leader stressed that they also agreed what was important was the ends of preventing a nuclear Iran rather than the means, and that when it comes to stopping Iran there were no politics.

Netanyahu also outlined his plan for economic peace with the Palestinians and Obama told him he agreed that quality of life was connected to security.

Obama said, “I’ll never compromise Israel’s security. Terrorism is not theoretical, it’s right here a block away from this hotel, and it must be fought with full force and strength.”

Netanyahu was joined in the meeting by his foreign policy advisers Dore Gold, Uzi Arad, Zalman Shoval and Ron Dermer.

After the morning’s meetings, Obama visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

He laid a wreath, lit a memorial flame, and deemed the place ultimately to be “a place of hope.”

“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,” he wrote in the visitors’ book.

The US presidential hopeful promised to bring his two young daughters to visit the memorial on his next trip to Israel.

Earlier, while still in Jordan, Obama said that as president he would begin working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal from his first day in office.

The candidate said, however, that both sides must work to make peace happen.

“There’s a tendency for each side to focus on the faults of the other rather than look in the mirror,” Obama told reporters Tuesday in Amman before heading to Israel and the PA.

“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,” Obama said.

“My goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I’m sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs.”

Obama arrived in Israel Tuesday night from Jordan and was due to leave for Germany early on Thursday.

On Tuesday, he condemned the bulldozer terror attack in Jerusalem just a few hours before he arrived at the King David Hotel, just up the street from where the attack took place.

In an interview with CBS News conducted shortly before he embarked on his trip to Israel, Obama reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself and asserted that an IAF attack on an alleged nuclear facility in Syria in September of 2007 was “appropriate.”

Obama, however, would not say whether he thought Israel would eventually launch an attack on Iran if diplomatic efforts failed to stall Teheran’s nuclear program.

“Yes,” Obama said. “I think that there was sufficient evidence that the [Syrians] were developing a site using a nuclear . . . blueprint that was similar to the North Korean model.”

“Ultimately,” he continued, “these are decisions that the Israelis have to make. I will not hypothesize on [an Israeli attack in Iran],” he said. “I think Israel has a right to defend itself. But I will not speculate on the difficult judgment that they would have to make in a whole host of possible scenarios.”

JTA and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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