U.S. presidential contender Barack Obama has visited Israel as he continues a weeklong overseas tour designed to distinguish his foreign-policy objectives from those of his rival, John McCain.
The 24-hour stop in Israel and the Palestinian territories was considered an important test for the Democratic U.S. senator, who wants to show commitment to Israel but at the same time a readiness to listen to the Palestinians as part of the peace process.
He visited Sderot, the town in southern Israel that is the main target for rocket fire from the nearby Gaza Strip. There, he underlined his solidarity with Israelis in the face of decades of terrorist attacks upon civilians.
And he spoke clearly of his commitment to Israel's security as he met with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem.
"I'm here on this trip to reaffirm the special relationship between Israel and the United States, my abiding commitment to Israel's security, and my hope that I can serve as an effective partner," Obama said, "whether as a United States senator or as a president, in bringing about a more lasting peace in the region."
He also named Iran as the "single most important threat" to Israel and the United States, and predicted that a nuclear Iran would set off a race among Mideast countries to also arm themselves with atomic weapons. For that reason, he said, Iran must be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"A nuclear Iran would be a game-changing situation, not just in the Middle East, but around the world," he said.
Negotiate With Tehran
In Israel, the Iranian nuclear program is regarded as a potentially lethal threat to the country's security, and the feeling is heightened by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's regular threats against the Jewish state.
Obama has alarmed some Israelis by his stated readiness to negotiate directly with Tehran over the Iranian nuclear crisis. He wants to convince Israeli leaders that his openness to negotiations, as well as readiness to use punitive sanctions, holds more promise for ending Iran's nuclear ambitions than does McCain's position on negotiations.
Earlier this month McCain said in an interview with the U.S. television network NBC that "I don't think that it would be appropriate to sit down, without pre-condition, with President Ahmadinejad of Iran, who has said his nation is dedicated to the extinction of the state of Israel."
In Israel, Obama defended his approach.
"My whole goal, in terms of having tough, serious, direct diplomacy, is not because I am naive about the nature of any of these regimes. I'm not," he said. "It is because if we show ourselves willing to talk and to offer carrots and sticks in order to deal with these pressing problems, and if Iran then rejects any overtures of that sort, it puts us in a stronger position to mobilize the international community to ratchet up the pressure."
Obama also traveled to Ramallah in the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas.
"Senator Obama said to the [Palestinian] president that if he is elected, he will be a constructive partner in peace between Palestinians and Israelis," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters after the meeting. "He will not waste a minute because, to him, as he said, time is of the essence, and it is a vital American interest to reach an agreement between Palestinians and Israelis based on the two state solution, but he emphasized that the decisions required for peace are required from Palestinians and Israelis."
Obama made no public remarks after the Ramallah meeting, but his aides said a written statement would be released to the press later.
His written statement is expected to echo his argument made in Amman on July 22 that peace in the Mideast requires recognizing the Palestinians' hardships, as well as Israel's security concerns.
"What I think can change," Obama said in Amman, "is the ability of the United States government and a United States president to be actively engaged with the peace process and to be concerned and recognize the legitimate difficulties that the Palestinian people are experiencing right now."
The journey to the West Bank contrasted with the trip to Israel in March of Obama's rival for the U.S. presidency, Republican Senator John McCain. During that trip, McCain did not meet Palestinian leaders.
Also on Obama's schedule were meetings not only with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert but Olmert's three most important political rivals, a visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, and a stop at the Western Wall in the heart of Old Jerusalem.
The test of success for Obama's tour will be the extent to which he was able to persuade both parties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he can work with one without jeopardizing the interests of the other.
The difficulty of that balancing act has already been amply demonstrated by the storm generated a few weeks ago by Obama's declaration that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel.
His campaign declaration, intended to quell rumors that he was overly sympathetic to the Palestinians, outraged the Palestinians until he issued a subsequent clarification -- that he meant the city should not be divided by a fence or barrier as it was before 1967. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital.