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CAMPAIGN '08: OBAMA IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Israeli family welcomes Obama

He tours their rocket- damaged house, which McCain visited earlier.

July 24, 2008|Batsheva Sobelman and Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writers

SDEROT, ISRAEL — Barack Obama stood amid the debris in Pinhas Amar's kitchen, an arm around his host. The Orthodox religious scribe recalled matter-of-factly how a rocket had crashed through the ceiling. Then Amar blessed the Democratic candidate, praying for his success.

"He smiled and said, if he did become president, I would be among his first guests in the White House," Amar said later, describing the scene. "I said, 'Don't forget me,' and indeed I believe he will not."

It was an unusual moment in a presidential campaign being waged in part beyond America's borders, a race the Amar household has witnessed more intimately than perhaps any family outside the U.S.

The Amars gave John McCain, the all-but-certain Republican nominee, the same tour of their damaged home in March. On Wednesday it was his rival's turn, as Obama visited Israel to show voters that he too cares about the security of the Jewish state.

Israel's defense minister had chosen the Moroccan Jewish couple and their children as a poster family for this battered desert town. He escorted each of the rival candidates to the Amars' yellow stone house on Sinai Street to emphasize the threat from Palestinian rockets from the nearby Gaza Strip.

Pinhas and Aliza Amar treated both senators like royalty and said they felt the Americans' empathy during the brief visits. Their discussions did not touch on politics or the choices Israel and the U.S. face in confronting Islamic militants in the Middle East.

But like Israelis debating anything important, they came to differing conclusions about the two men.

Pinhas, a thoughtful 48-year-old with graying hair, said he was taken by Obama, more a feeling than anything else.

"Obama has this personal charm, and it looks like it's going to get him elected," he said. "McCain too is a very impressive man, a man with a special story . . . and that gives him stature.

"But Obama seems to come across better," he said. "He has a charismatic presence. . . . McCain was a bit more distant."

Aliza Amar, 40, an energetic, round-faced woman in a pale pink head scarf and chic gold-framed eyeglasses, reserved her judgment. Since meeting McCain, she has followed his speeches. "He hasn't forgotten Israel," she said. "He always sounds quite determined and adamant in his opinion that [Israel] is an important issue."

As for Obama, "I know that he too supports Israel." The question for whoever gets elected, she concluded, is "whether their actions support their words."

Like other communities on the front line of Israel's conflict, Sderot is a bastion of conservative politics and hardened skeptics of the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks Obama and McCain support.

Thousands of crude, wildly inaccurate Kassam rockets have struck in and around this town in the last eight years, killing more than a dozen people and damaging hundreds of homes. Until Israel reached a cease-fire a month ago with Hamas, the militant group that runs Gaza, Sderot often experienced several attacks a day, preceded by sirens that gave residents 15 seconds to seek cover.

Aliza Amar is partly disabled by a series of strokes. The impact of the rocket that crashed through her roof in December knocked her from her wheelchair, and her knee was pierced with shrapnel.

The family is renting a house down the street while the roof is being replaced, a task slowed by sluggish insurance procedures.

Moving about with a cane, Aliza worked two cellphones Wednesday as she presided over a platoon of relatives and neighbors preparing traditional Moroccan pastries and gifts for the Illinois senator and his delegation.

"I'm glad for the attention," she said. "It would be easy enough to forget about us during this so-called truce. The fear is constant. You never know when the rockets will start again."

Obama arrived in the late afternoon, escorted by Sderot's mayor and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. They were greeted by the couple and their three daughters.

The presidential hopeful "walked in as though he knew the place," Aliza said. "He was uninhibited and made us feel comfortable." He shook everyone's hands, and Aliza kissed him on the cheek. Pinhas took him in the kitchen, still littered with fragments of the roof, and recounted the attack.

Later, Obama mentioned the Amars as an example of "the resilience of the people of Sderot and the people of Israel." He said: "The family that had seen a rocket go through their house, they were rebuilding, not moving away.

"This terror is intolerable," he declared. And though he was hopeful about a lasting peace deal, he said, "America must always stand up for Israel's right to defend itself."

After the candidate left, the Amars' eldest daughter, Tamar, 22, said she felt Obama had connected with the town.

"It is true that he came for his own reasons and for a political end, but you could tell that he realized there was something beyond that," she said. "Many politicians have been through Sderot, and I have seen many. Today I saw someone who's also real."

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richard.boudreaux@latimes.com

Sobelman reported from Sderot and Boudreaux from Jerusalem.

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