Middle East News
Obama: Jerusalem must not be "sliced up" (2nd Roundup)
Jul 23, 2008, 16:53 GMT
Jerusalem - US presidential candidate Barack Obama said Wednesday Jerusalem should not be 'sliced up,' making a 30-hour visit to Israel during which he voiced strong support for the Jewish state, but also took pains to travel to the West Bank.
Speaking in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, the Democratic contender called himself a 'friend of Israel', said rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip were 'intolerable' and rejected talks with Hamas, which he said 'uses terror as a weapon' and does not recognize Israel's right to exist.
Obama also spoke out against a nuclear Iran, which he called a 'grave threat' and warned could spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Throughout the day, he highlighted his 'deep' and 'abiding commitment' to Israel's security, a message aimed s much at Jewish voters at home as at his Israeli hosts.
'We stand with he people of Sderot and of Israel,' Obama told a joint news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in the rocket-stricken town just miles from the Gaza Strip.
'America must always stand up for Israel's rights to defend itself,' he said.
'In terms of knowing my commitments, you don't just have to look at my words, look at my deeds,' he said. In the US Senate, 'vote after vote I've demonstrated my support for Israel.'
Asked about his remark of last month, in which he said Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel, from which he later backtracked, Obama said:
'I didn't change my statement. I continue to say that Jerusalem will continue to be the capital of Israel. It's important that we don't slice it in half.'
But he added Jerusalem was a 'final-status issue' to be dealt with directly between Israel and the Palestinians in their negotiations on a two-state solution.
And he called for supporting moderate Palestinian leaders 'who share this vision, including the Palestinian leaders I met today.'
He also reiterated that as president he would engage with Iran, arguing his 'carrot and stick' policy would put the US in a stronger position to mobilize international support behind tough moves if Iran rejected such overtures.
Israelis, who regard Iran as an 'existential threat', have been wary of that element of Obama's platform and, according to a recent opinion poll, many seem to favour Republican candidate John McCain.
Palestinians for their part angrily remember Obama's undivided Jerusalem remark. When asked, many express mainly apathy to the US presidential race, charging that any US president would show 'bias' toward Israel and would have to accommodate the Jewish vote.
But they nevertheless show a clear preference for Obama to McCain, whom they regard as someone who would continue the 'extreme-hawkish, anti-Arab' policies of President George W Bush.
Although some were unhappy about the tight schedule, Palestinians also expressed contentment that Obama, unlike McCain during his visit in March, took time to visit the West Bank.
Obama allocated one hour of his 15-hour work day to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
He had earlier begun his packed day discussing Iran with Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak over breakfast, sounding out opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, touring Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum and meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres.
He then made the short journey to Ramallah, just nort of Jerusalem, before joining Livni on a helicopter tour to Sderot, to be followed by dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and a visit to Jerusalem's Western Wall.
The retaining wall, a remnant of the Jewish Biblical Temple, is the holiest still-standing monument in Judaism.
'Excellent' was the single word Obama used to describe his one- hour talk with Abbas, as he emerged from the parley in Ramallah which left no time for joint statements to the media.
Saeb Erekat, a senior official in Abbas' Fatah party, said the Palestinian president briefed Obama about the peace process and explained the difficulties and obstacles created by Israel's construction of settlement blocks, its security barrier and military arrest raids in the West Bank.
Obama said he would be a 'constructive partner in peace' between Israelis and Palestinians if elected and would 'not waste a minute' because time is of the essence, he said.
'We appreciate very much that Senator Obama is committed to working with us in pursuing a two-state solution and he shared the hopes for peace before the end of the year,' Erekat said.
Asked about the short time Obama spent with the Palestinians, he said 'it is not the time that counts, but the substance. He left us feeling very well, reassuring us about his commitment to peace.'
Obama's visit comes a day after an attack in which a Palestinian construction worker ploughed a bulldozer into traffic in the city centre, injuring at least 16 people.
The attack, which took place yards from his Jerusalem King David Hotel and mirrored a similar incident just three weeks ago - an incident in which three Israelis were killed. 'There are no excuses,' Obama said, condemning the attack on landing in Tel Aviv from Amman late Tuesday.