"I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud ap-proach to Israel, then you're anti-Israel, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel," leading Democratic presidential contender Illinois Senator Barack Obama said Sunday. "If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress," he said. He also criticized the notion that anyone who asks tough questions about advancing the peace process or tries to secure Israel by anyway other than "just crushing the opposition" is being "soft or anti-Israel." Obama made the comments in a closed-door meeting with several members of Cleveland's Jewish community, who will be participating in the crucial Ohio primary to be held next Tuesday. The candidate stressed his commitment to a secure, Jewish Israel and to pursuing robust diplomacy - while keeping all options on the table - to ensure that Iran doesn't acquire nuclear weapons, according to a transcript of the off-the-record event. Obama defended - and distanced - himself from criticism that has been leveled at him about some of his campaign advisers and endorsers, but he suggested that too black-and-white a perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict helped no one. He described the debate in Israel as "much more open" than it often is in the United States. "Understandably, because of the pressure that Israel is under, I think the US pro-Israel community is sometimes a little more protective or concerned about opening up that conversation," he continued. "All I'm saying, though, is that actually ultimately should be our goal - to have that same clear-eyed view about how we approach these issues." He also again noted his disagreement with some of the critical statements on Israel made by the pastor of his church, which he ascribed to the latter's support for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa at a time that Israel continued to trade with the regime there. "He is like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don't agree with," he said. "And I suspect there are some people in this room who have heard relatives say some things that they don't agree with, including, on occasion, directed at African Americans." He concluded, "I understand the concerns and the sensitivities, and one of my goals constantly in my public career has been to try to bridge what was a historically powerful bond between the African American and Jewish communities that has been frayed in recent years." Also on Sunday, Ralph Nader, while declaring his third-party candidacy for the US presidency, attacked Obama for allegedly concealing his "pro-Palestinian" feelings. "He's run a brilliant tactical campaign, but his better instincts and his knowledge have been censored by himself," Nader charged on NBC's Meet the Press. "He was pro-Palestinian when he was in Illinois before he ran for the state senate... Now he's supporting the Israeli destruction of the tiny section called Gaza with a million and a half people." Nader called the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a "real off-the-table issue for the candidates," including Obama, whom he described as "the first liberal evangelist in a long time" to run for president. "The guy doesn't know what he's talking about. He's got no credibility," an Obama campaign adviser said about Nader. Obama's campaign on Monday responded to Nader's attacks on the senator's position on Gaza. "Barack Obama's longstanding support for Israel's security is rooted in his belief that no civilians should have to live with the threat of terrorism," the campaign statement said. "In Gaza, Hamas continues to fire rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians every day, and that's why it is long past time that Hamas renounces terrorism, recognizes Israel's right to exist and abides by past agreements." Democratic National Committee consultant Matt Dorf, who also does Jewish outreach, also dismissed the Nader accusations as off the mark and meaningless. "If he thinks there are voters out there to be had by demonizing Barack Obama's record, including on Middle East issues, he's not going to find them," Dorf said. "Nader's going to get even less support than he got last time." The controversial Green Party candidate has run unsuccessfully for president in the past, making his strongest showing in 2000 when he took tens of thousands of votes in Florida, which George W. Bush narrowly won to take the presidency. Though Nader isn't expected to pose a serious challenge in the general election, he could again siphon off voters from the left side of the spectrum, hurting the Democratic nominee. The progressive candidate's opening shot at Obama over Israel intensified a debate raging in some hawkish, right-wing circles over whether the Illinois senator has solid pro-Israel credentials. Nader's comments were quickly seized upon by the Republican Jewish Coalition. "When a long-time political activist like Ralph Nader, with a well-documented, anti-Israel bias, claims that Senator Obama shares this anti-Israel bias, that is alarming," said RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks. "If Senator Obama has only reversed his positions to run for president, it once again raises serious questions about his grasp of the geopolitical realities of the Middle East and puts into doubt his commitment to the safety and security of Israel. These are important questions we in the Jewish community will be asking."