Obama meets leaders of Israel, Palestinians

He backs Israel's right to self-defense

Election 2008

July 24, 2008|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM - With a fanfare typically accorded to a visiting head of state, Sen. Barack Obama dashed through a series of meetings with leaders on both sides of the Middle East conflict yesterday, saying it was in Israel's interest to find peace with the Palestinians. Yet he made clear that Israel should be able to defend itself.

Obama said that the capital of Israel should be Jerusalem, but added that the matter should be settled through a negotiation by the parties.

"That's an issue that has to be dealt with by the parties involved, the Palestinians and the Israelis, and it is not the job of the United States to dictate the form in which that will take," Obama said, "but rather to support the efforts that are being made right now to resolve these very difficult issues that have a long history."

Obama, who flew by helicopter to the southern Israeli city of Sderot, said the people of Israel should be able to defend themselves from Palestinian rocket attacks from nearby Gaza. Sderot has been hit by more than 2,000 rockets in the past four years, and is a symbolic destination for visiting politicians, including Sen. John McCain, who toured it four months ago.

In Sderot, Obama held a news conference outside against a backdrop of spent rockets and munitions. "The state of Israel faces determined enemies who seek its destruction," Obama said. "But it also has a friend and ally in the United States that will always stand by the people of Israel."

He issued a warning to Iran, saying, "A nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." He said no options were "off the table" in dealing with a nuclear threat from Iran but that the country should be offered "big carrots" as well as "big sticks." The Bush administration and others have said Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, although Iran's leaders insist it is for peaceful purposes.

"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," he said.

Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, held a busy day of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, sharing breakfast with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak before traveling to the West Bank to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Obama, who shuttled between morning meetings at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Wearing a white yarmulke, he rekindled a flame and paused for a few moments of quiet reflection as he laid a wreath on a tomb that contains ashes from Nazi extermination camps.

"At a time of great peril and promise, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man's potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise from tragedy and remake our world," Obama said after visiting the memorial. "Let our children come here, and know this history, so they can add their voices to proclaim "never again. "And may we remember those who perished, not only as victims but also as individuals who hoped and loved and dreamed like us, and who have become symbols of the human spirit."

Obama later met with Abbas and the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad, for one hour at the Mukata, the Palestinian president's compound in Ramallah.

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