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 trip comes as his presidential campaign has stepped up its outreach efforts to Jewish voters, and as it tries to shore up the presumptive Democratic candidate’s image with the general public as a potential commander in chief.
Over the past few weeks the Obama campaign has set up Jewish outreach committees in various cities, many with the help of Jewish lawmakers who either backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for president or stayed neutral in the Democratic primary campaign.
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 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 Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where 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 was slated to meet later in the day with Olmert.
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.
Obama drew criticism from the Republican Jewish Coalition and some conservative bloggers over some of the comments he made in Jordan.
Terrorism, Obama said, is “counterproductive, as well as being immoral, because it makes, I believe, the Israelis want to dig in and simply think about their own security regardless of what’s going on beyond their borders.”
Obama immediately added that “the same would be true of any people when these kinds of things happen and innocent people are injured.”
“On the other hand, I think that the Palestinians have to feel some sense of progress in terms of their economic situation, you know, whether it’s on the West Bank or Gaza, if people continually feel pressed, where they can’t get to their job or they can’t make a living, they get frustrated,” Obama said. “It’s hard for them if they see no glimmer of hope to then want to take a leap in order to make impressions.”
In response to the comments, the RJC issued a statement criticizing Obama for what the organization described as “asking Israelis and the American Jewish community to put terrorism in context.”
Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, responded with his own criticism of the RJC.
“I can only imagine that the head of the RJC put on one of those hats with horns on it that Shamans might wear,” Forman said. “Then they must have proceeded to whip themselves into a fury dancing around a fire pit stoked with acacia wood. Then by pouring the blood of a red newt over the Obama statement and reading the statement by the light of the acacia fire, they could somehow divine an anti-Israel message out of what appears, to everybody else, to be a pro-Israel statement.”
Obama press conference in Sderot