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CAMPAIGN '08: OBAMA IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Obama assures Israel of support

He says Iran cannot be allowed to go nuclear, but restates he's open to talks. His hosts seem amenable.

July 24, 2008|Michael Finnegan and Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — Despite months of warnings by John McCain that Barack Obama's stance toward Iran threatens Israel, political leaders in the Jewish state welcomed the Democrat's assurances Wednesday that he would work to block Iran from acquiring nuclear arms.

Obama navigated a thicket of regional tensions on a daylong visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. But Israeli leaders across the political spectrum voiced no misgivings about his commitment to Israel's security -- above all in countering the Iranian threat.

On a day of talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Obama declared solidarity against "an Iranian regime that sponsors terrorism, pursues nuclear weapons and threatens Israel's existence."

"A nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat, and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," Obama told reporters in Sderot, a rocket-battered town in southern Israel near the Gaza Strip.

Obama also traveled to the West Bank, where he spent an hour with the president and prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. They too gave a warm reception to the Democratic Party's presidential nominee-in-waiting.

"He left us feeling very well, reassuring us about his commitment for peace," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator who escorted Obama into a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

But most remarkable on Obama's visit was the absence of reservations expressed by the Israelis about his openness to dialogue with Iran.

Many Israeli leaders have said in the past that such talks would help legitimize Iran and give it more time to develop nuclear weapons. But rather than emphasize those differences, even in private, several who met with Obama sounded eager to find points of agreement.

Even former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, usually a vocal critic of talks with Iran, refrained from challenging Obama's view. After the two met, the right-wing opposition Likud Party leader said they had agreed "the most pressing issue concerning the foreign policies of both countries must be to prevent Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons."

A Netanyahu advisor said it was more fruitful to find common ground with a man who might become president. He said Netanyahu, who aspires to lead Israel again, was satisfied with Obama's argument.

"He explained why he felt that engagement with Iran is necessary. No one took issue with him because of the context in which he put it -- that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable," said the advisor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the discussion. "No Israeli would dispute that if the purpose of having a dialogue is to exhaust all measures before moving up the ladder, then it's a plausible approach, a pragmatic approach."

A Cabinet official involved in a separate meeting with the candidate also voiced satisfaction with his stance.

"On the whole, his position did not contradict the need to take forceful action, if necessary, against Iran," the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "Instead, his position is based on the need to learn whether all alleys of diplomacy are exhausted."

That left McCain out of sync with Israeli leaders in condemning Obama as weak on Iran. His campaign argues that Obama's readiness to hold an "unconditional summit" with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would give Ahmadinejad the appearance of respectability, embolden Iranian hard-liners and "put the world's security at risk."

McCain has said he would never meet with Ahmadinejad while he is dedicated to Israel's extinction and his country is developing nuclear weapons and sending explosives to Iraq. On Wednesday, McCain reminded a crowd in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., that Ahmadinejad once called Israel a "stinking corpse."

A spokesman for the presumptive Republican White House nominee declined to comment on the reception Obama received from Israeli leaders. But his spokesmen sent a string of e-mails castigating Obama for saying a year ago that he would be willing to meet without precondition with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. ("Happy Anniversary," one said in the subject line.)

McCain has called Obama's approach to hostile nations naive.

In Sderot, Obama defended it. "My whole goal, in terms of having tough, serious direct diplomacy, is not because I'm naive about the nature of any of these regimes; I'm not," the Illinois senator said outside a police station.

"If we show ourselves willing to talk, and to offer carrots and sticks in order to deal with these pressing problems, and if Iran then rejects any overtures of that sort, it puts us in a stronger position to mobilize the international community to ratchet up the pressure on Iran," he said.

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