SDEROT, Israel — Tough talk on Iran dominated Barack Obama's meetings Wednesday in Israel and the West Bank, as Israeli officials amplified their enemy's threat and the Democratic presidential hopeful declared that a "nuclear Iran would be a game-changing situation."
Speaking at an afternoon news conference in Sderot, a city near the Gaza Strip that's long been a target for Palestinian rocket attacks, Obama said that "the world must prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons" and that "America must always stand up for Israel's right to defend itself against those who threaten its people."
The Illinois senator warned pointedly that no options are "off the table" in confronting a nuclear threat from Iran, though he added that Iran should be offered "big carrots" as well as "big sticks."
Obama's aggressive rhetoric on Iran followed his emphasis earlier this week on his plan to send more U.S. troops to fight terrorism in Afghanistan should he defeat Republican John McCain in November. Obama also has made clear that he remains committed to withdrawing combat troops from Iraq over 16 months, and that he still sees merit in talking to enemy nations including Iran. But his rhetoric has taken on a more militaristic tone in recent days than was typical in his primary election campaign.
Iran also was a recurring theme throughout Obama's private meetings Wednesday with Israel's President Shimon Peres, Labor leader and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Olmert told Obama in remarks to reporters before they began a private meeting shortly before 9 p.m., Obama's last meeting of the night, that "the situation in Iran is of course a main concern for the people of Israel" as well as tensions involving the Palestinians and Syrians.
Livni said the problem in the Middle East is between moderates and extremists rather than Israelis and Arabs, and that some of the rockets fired into Sderot are Iranian-made. "Terror is terror is terror," she said.
Netanyahu told reporters after his earlier meeting with Obama that "the senator and I agreed that the primacy of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power is clear and this should guide our mutual policies." Netanyahu said "achieving this goal is more important than how you achieve it, but it's terribly important to achieve it."
Iran seemed to eclipse the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians as a concern, although the latter remained on everyone's agenda.
Obama also traveled to Ramallah in the West Bank for an hour-long visit with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad, and at his news conference in Sderot said Israel and the United States need to support moderate Palestinian leaders such as those two, who accept the legitimacy of Israel and renounce violence.
Obama made no statement following his hour-long meeting with Abbas and Fayad. Abbas walked him out to his motorcade afterward and the two appeared comfortable with one another.
Obama later told Olmert that he learned from leaders in Ramallah that "there's a strong sense that progress is being made" in approaching peace with Israel. Olmert said, "That's right," and nodded.
Saeb Erekat, an Abbas adviser and Palestinian cabinet member in charge of negotiations with Israel, said in a telephone interview that the Palestinians felt Obama showed he's serious about the peace process and that the Democratic candidate was "really focused, he knows the details of the issues."
Erekat said the Palestinians presented Obama with documentation of continued settlement growth in the West Bank, but that Obama didn't comment on what's one of the most contentious issues in the peace talks.
Obama did, however, weigh in on another contentious issue — saying that Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel. He added that whether it should be all under Israeli control or divided with Palestinians should be settled by negotiation, and that it's not up to the United States to determine.
Obama's general election rival, Republican John McCain, who visited Israel earlier this year, also visited Sderot, but unlike Obama, McCain did not meet with the Palestinians.
While Obama leads McCain in national polls back home, polls show that he may not be able to count on as wide a majority of Jewish supporters as is typical for Democrats. Polls also indicate that Israelis favor McCain over Obama on issues of Israel's security.
Obama's remarks in Sderot followed his visit with an Israeli family whose home was damaged by a rocket attack. Earlier, while touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Obama aides said he met with Aml Ganim, the police officer who shot the Palestinian man behind a backhoe attack Tuesday in Jerusalem. Obama also spoke Wednesday with the family of a soldier killed in the attack that triggered a 2006 war against Hezbollah.
Sderot's mayor gave Obama a T-shirt to take home with him. It said "I (heart) Sderot," with a rocket going through the heart.
(Talev reported from Jerusalem and Ramallah, West Bank. Nissenbaum reported from Sderot.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2008