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(photo credit: Associated Press)
In her first address to a Jewish group since announcing her candidacy for president, Sen. Hillary Clinton tried to convince doubters that she'll stand by Israel.
Speaking at a dinner for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's Northeast region over the weekend, the New York Democrat - the early front-runner for her party's presidential nomination - sought to answer several of the questions Jewish voters will be asking of candidates over the next year and a half.
Clinton, 59, was tough on Hamas and Hizbullah, said Iran must not be allowed to become a nuclear power and declared her unequivocal support for the Jewish state.
"I have been, I am now and I always will be proud to stand with all of you as a strong supporter of Israel," she said. "We believe that Israelis have the right to live in their country without the constant threat of terrorism, war and rocket fire."
Though it's too early to predict who will take the Jewish vote in the 2008 vote, candidates for the Democratic nomination are expected to woo Jewish voters because of their traditionally strong support for the party and their deep pockets as political contributors.
Observers say Clinton has made strides as a vocal supporter of Israel during her six years as a senator, even though she still may be a tough sell to those who have not forgiven her embrace and kiss with Suha Arafat in November 1999 - just after Arafat had accused Israel of poisoning Palestinian babies.
Clinton claimed Arafat's comments hadn't been translated correctly and she became aware of the allegations only after the event.
Still, her supporters say that those who bring up that incident now - after Clinton has consistently supported legislation in support of Israel - are grasping at straws.
Speaking before a crowd of 1,700 at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Manhattan, Clinton described the "unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States based on shared interests and rooted in strength."
Israel, she said, was a beacon of democracy in a tyrannical neighborhood, and the threats it faced from Hizbullah and Iran were threats not just to Israel but to the entire Middle East, the United States and the rest of the world.
Clinton berated Iran and the Holocaust-denial conference hosted by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Teheran in December, though she didn't mention Ahmadinejad's name.
The conference "was beyond the pale of international discourse and acceptable behavior," Clinton said, calling it an insult to survivors and Allied solders who bore witness to Nazi atrocities.
"To deny the Holocaust places Iran's leadership in the company of the most despicable bigots and historical revisionists," she said, adding the conference only added urgency to the need to deal with Iran.
"US policy must be clear and unequivocal: We cannot, we should not, we must not permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons," Clinton said. "As I have said for a long time, no option should be taken off the table" in dealing with this threat.
But the United States should first try to engage Iran in dialogue, she said.
"I'm not sure anything positive would come out of it," Clinton said, but at least such a dialogue would give the United States more information about its adversary, possibly provide some leverage and - if military force ultimately is necessary - show the world that other options had been exhausted first.
In a speech in which she sentimentally recalled several trips to Israel, Clinton also said Hamas and Hizbullah must give up terrorism and accept Israel as a reality. She called on the groups to return the three captive IDF soldiers without condition.
Clinton, who lobbied for the International Red Cross to accept Israel's Magen David Adom as a member, said she had sent a letter to IRC President Jacob Kellenberger asking the Red Cross to make sure the captured soldiers are safe and are released.
Clinton also said she would "do an event" next week in the Senate to highlight the antiSemitic and anti-Israeli rhetoric that remains part of the Palestinian Authority's educational curriculum.
After Clinton's address, which many said went on a little too long and lacked her husband's rhetorical flair, the debate was still open for some.
"The only thing you can say about the Jewish vote now is that it's heavily Democratic," said Betsy Sheerr, past president of JACPAC, a political action committee that supports congressional candidates who are both pro-Israel and pro-choice.
"At this stage of the game, there are a lot of wait-and-see attitudes and there's going to be no clear preference in the Jewish community for any of the candidates - except, obviously, their pro-Israel credentials will have to be very solid," Sheerr said. "I think people are looking to see that they can back a winner."