SDEROT, ISRAEL — In a clear effort to show that he understands the security needs of Israel, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, visited a town near the border of Gaza that has for seven years been targeted with terrorist rockets and mortars, fired largely by Hamas.
"I’m here to say as an American and as a friend of Israel that we stand with the people of Sderot and with all the people of Israel," Obama proclaimed in prepared remarks, "I’m deeply committed to helping Israel achieve a lasting peace with Palestinians who are prepared to accept the State of Israel, renounce violence and terrorism, and abide by agreements."
Obama was accompanied by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, came to the Sderot police station where he was shown a collection on display of Qassam rockets and mortar shells. More than a dozen citizens of Sderot have been killed in these attacks, with aid organizations estimating that up to 25% of the town’s citizens have fled.
“This terror is intolerable,” Obama said. “Israelis should not have to live endangered in their homes and schools.” Obama reaffirmed his support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, mentioning his meeting earlier in the day with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, saying “we must support Palestinian leaders who share this vision” for peace.
Obama condemned the Iranian nuclear threat and an act of terrorism that occurred just yards from his hotel on Tuesday, when a resident of East Jerusalem wreaked havoc with a bulldozer.
A Tour of Threats
Before his trip to Sderot, Obama had been briefed by Barak, Livni, and an official of the Israeli Defense Force on the various threats facing Israel. They then boarded an Israeli Blackhawk helicopter for an hour-long aerial tour of the area, including visits to the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, Tel Aviv, and a border area with the West Bank.
Upon landing, Obama was taken by motorcade to a suburb of Sderot to visit the Amar family, whose modest home had been destroyed by a Qassam rocket in December.
Mother Eliza Amar, injured by shrapnel, now walks with a cane.
Her daughter, 22-year-old Tamar, gave Defense Minister Ehud Barak a hug, and said: “I want to say something about this gorgeous man. You give us a lot of strength. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Obama joked that he wasn’t sure that Barak is “that gorgeous,” but agreed he’s a “good” and “strong” man. The Amar family gave Obama a flower arrangement and a framed photo of their destroyed home
Livni then introduced Obama to a throng of reporters, many Israeli, by saying that “Israel’s people’s suffering is not understood by the international community, and in your visit here, you showed that you really care.”
But many Israelis apparently still need some convincing.
The first question Obama was asked challenged him on his shift from declaring before a convention of the American Jewish pro-Israel group AIPAC that he supported an “undivided Jerusalem,” a declaration he backed off just days later. How can Israelis know he won’t change other positions, he was asked.
“First of all, I didn’t change my statement,” Obama said, though he clearly has backed off the term “undivided Jerusalem,” which means that Israel will not make any land concessions when it comes to Jerusalem. The Palestinian National Authority would like the capital of a future Palestinian state to be East Jerusalem, which has only been part of Israel since 1967.
“I continue to say that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel,” Obama said, addressing an issue that had not been raised. “And I have said that before and I will say it again.”
Obama said that while it is important that the city is not simply sliced in half, he also says that it’s a final status issue to be dealt with by the Palestinians and the Israelis – and not the job of the US to dictate the form in which that will take.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said those skeptical of Obama don’t need “to just look at my words. You can look at my deeds.” Obama pointed out past legislative and rhetorical action he’d taken, including a recent “bill to call for divestment from Iran as a way of ratcheting up the pressure to ensure that they don’t obtain a nuclear weapon.”
Apparently trying to elicit an emotional response from the cool and measured candidate, a reporter from Israeli Radio asked him about “all these rockets there behind you.” Would he think it acceptable if the U.S. suffered similar attacks?
“I don’t think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on the heads of their citizens,” Obama said. “I can assure you that if — I don’t even care if I was a politician. If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”
An American reporter from Reuters asked Obama about the concerns of some Israelis that a President Obama would be too willing to pressure Israel into making major concessions with the Palestinians.
Obama disputed the notion, citing examples of his meetings today as proof.
“I don’t think that Minister Livni or Minister Barak or Bibi Netanyahu or the others, President Peres, when they spoke to me today, got any sense that I would be pressuring them to accept any kinds of concessions that would put their security at stake,” Obama saod. “We don’t need a peace deal just to have a piece of paper that doesn’t result in peace. We need something that’s meaningful, and it’s not going to be meaningful if Israel’s security is not part of that package.”
Another Israeli reporter asked if Obama’s willingness to express support for its military action against Hezbollah in would also apply if Israel took action against Iran, a country pursuing nuclear weapons, whose president has threatened to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.
Obama reiterated that he will take “no options off the table” when it comes to the potential Iranian nuclear threat.
“Iranians need to understand that, whether it’s the Bush administration or an Obama administration, that this is a paramount concern to the United States,” he said. “And I think there are opportunities for us to mobilize a much more serious regime of sanctions on Iran, but also to offer them the possibility of improved relations in the international community if they stand down on these nuclear weapons.”
Anniversary of Controversial Pledge
At a Democratic presidential debate exactly one year ago, Obama was asked if he would “be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea?”
"I would," he answered.
Surrounded by mortar shells fired upon Sderot that Israel government officials say come from Iran, Obama was asked by a Washington Post reporter if there is “anything you have heard today in your discussions with Israeli leaders that has made you rethink that pledge”?
Obama affirmed that he “would, at my time and choosing, be willing to meet with any leader if I thought it would promote the national security interests of the United States of America.”
Obama said, his “whole goal, in terms of having tough, serious direct diplomacy, is not because I’m naive about the nature of any of these regimes.”
Given Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy, Obama was also asked if he believed Israel should negotiate with Hamas.
“It is very hard to negotiate with a group that is not representative of a nation-state, does not recognize your right to exist, has consistently used terror as a weapon and is deeply influenced by other countries,” he said. “I think that Hamas leadership will have to make a decision at some point as to whether it is a serious political party seeking to represent the aspirations of the Palestinian people — and, as a consequence, willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence as a tool to achieve its aims — or whether it wants to continue to operate as a terrorist organization.”
Obama’s last official stop in the day was the home of embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
“I’m very happy that you found the time to come and visit with us in the tradition of all the great friends of the state of Israel,” Olmert said, “and I know how friendly you are and how much you care for us.”
Obama thanked Olmert and noted that he was “pleased that in conversations with Palestinian leadership in Ramallah there’s a strong sense that progress is being made.”
“Indeed,” Olmert said.
“And that honest conversations are taking place,” Obama continued.
“That’s right,” Olmert said.
“So we appreciate your leadership on that front,” Obama said, “and I just want to communicate my stalwart support for Israel’s security and the hope that the United States of America will continue to serve a constructive role in moving the process forward, so thank you.”
– Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller