Obama favors Israel, but says both sides must be heard

In JTA interview, senator says sides need to live up to agreements; insists on meeting Ahmadinejad.

us special 2 224 (photo credit: )
us special 2 224
(photo credit: )
An Obama administration would cultivate close relations with Israel, but also hear out elements who discomfit many American Jewish groups - including the Iranian leadership and those calling for more balance in US mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "My belief is that Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East, one of our strongest allies anywhere in the world," said US Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), in a wide-ranging exclusive interview with JTA on Wednesday, during which he addressed many of the issues that have dogged his campaign among Jewish Americans. Even as he repeatedly stressed his support for the US-Israeli alliance as the unshakable starting point of his approach to the Middle East, Obama insisted that both the Israelis and the Palestinians must be accountable in progressing. "I don't consider myself in any camp other than the common sense camp," he said, when asked if he favors those who see the Israel alliance as uppermost or those who advocate greater balance. "It is dangerously simplistic to think that our only options with respect to US foreign policy are to be unquestioning in our approach to Israel-Palestinian relations or alternatively to fail to recognize the special relationship and the historic friendship and bonds that exist between the United States and Israel." As he did during a meeting in February with Jewish communal leaders in Cleveland, Obama voiced admiration for the Israeli people's ability to conduct a "robust" debate over issues regrding peace and security. Despite aggressive efforts by conservative pundits and Web sites to cast him as a political unkown with advisers and mentors hostile to Israel, Obama has done well among Jewish Democrats in his primary battles with US Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). A recent Gallup poll found Jews favoring Clinton by just 48 percent to 43 percent -- a gap falling within the margin of error and representing a much better showing than many had expected from Obama, a relative newcomer who beyond his home state cannot match his rival's longer and deeper ties to the Jewish community. Obama's comments come as polls show him gaining on Clinton among the Democratic electorate in Pennsylvania, where Jewish voters and politicians are seen as playing an important role in the state's April 22 primary. "My whole campaign is premised on the belief that people are decent and generous and people want to get beyond some of the old animosities of the past," Obama told JTA. "Obviously, the only way I could win would be to put together the kind of coalition I pout together back in Illinois, and the Jewish community has always been heart and center of that coalition." The senator did not shy away from a defense of Jeremiah Wright Jr., his former pastor whose closeness to positions and individuals considered anathema to Jews has stirred controversy, or from his insistence on reaching out to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and listening closely to Palestinian complaints. The US role "requires listening to both sides and talking to both sides, that requires that we don't dismiss out of hand the concerns of the Palestinians," Obama said. "Because there's no way we can move forward in those negotiations without at least understanding their perspective." Obama was asked about the views of Daniel Kurtzer, the former US ambassador to Israel who, before joining the Obama team as an adviser, recently co-wrote a book on negotiating Israeli-Arab peace. In the book, Kurtzer advocates U.S. pressure on Israel, saying Jerusalem has not paid a price for failing to dismantle unauthorized outpost settlements, as it has promised in recent years. "It is important if we're going to make progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks that both sides are held accountable to previous agreements," Obama said. "I think that the failure to abide by previous agreements has occurred more consistently on the Palestinian side particularly as it pertains to reining in violence." For a settlement to be reached, Obama said, Palestinians will need to make great strides in recognizing Israel's security needs; they will also need to abandon the goal of an unfettered right of return for Palestinians that would undermine Israel's existence as a Jewish state. Israel, on the other hand, will have to "acknowledge that it's going to have to make some territorial modifications to ensure that there is a stable and contiguous Palestinian state that can function, and ultimately that Palestinian children have opportunities to thrive like children anywhere else," he said. Obama hewed to his insistence that he would meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president who has denied the Holocaust and who wishes Israel would disappear, along with other pariah leaders - perhaps his most substantive foreign policy difference with Clinton. "Nobody has to persuade me that Ahmadinejad is in many ways reprehensible in his views," he said. "A simple diplomatic gesture of direct talks can actually strengthen the hands of moderates. A belligerent tone for Iran empowers the hardliners in Iran. It becomes more difficult for those who want to be part of the international community to persuade their fellow Iranians that the United States is not determined to invade or engage in regime change." Obama would not budge in his position on Wright, criticizing his most inflammatory rhetoric, while saying that it was a small part of his record as a preacher in the Chicago church where he served the senator's pastor for two decades. "The characterization of him that appears with the press is not a picture of what his ministry's been about," said Obama, who was attracted to Wright's Trinity United church in part because of the message of self help he preached to African Americans. "Prior to this controversy he was widely regarded as one of the preeminent preachers in this country, and certainly of one of the largest and most active churches in Chicago. It doesn't excuse the statements that were made, it's just simply is to indicate it's not as if there was a statement like this coming up every Sunday when I was at church." In response to a question, Obama said a Jewish campaigner had passed along a Haggadah in advance of Passover - and invited him to the seder on April 19, although the candidate did not say if he would attend. "The seder is one of my favorite occasions," he said. "It's so important to tell stories that tie history of the past to our moral obligations in the present."