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Jerusalem – Barack Obama wooed Jewish voters and skeptical Israelis in interviews published Tuesday, voicing support for key Israeli demands in peace talks with the Palestinians.
Winning over Israel could help the Democratic presidential candidate gain favor with American Jews, who make up large voting blocs in key states like New York and Florida.
But he faces a difficult task. Israeli officials say privately they would prefer Obama’s main rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, due to her experience and the backing her husband, Bill Clinton, gave Israel during his two terms as president in the 1990s. In contrast, Obama is relatively unknown here.
In a conference call with Israeli and Jewish reporters from Florida on Monday, Obama sought to put such concerns to rest, backing Israeli positions on key issues in its dispute with the Palestinians. He also took aim at a “virulent smear campaign” on the Internet that has depicted him as an observant Muslim.
The interview was published in two Israeli dailies, The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz.
Obama said he opposes the “literal” return of Palestinian refugees to homes they fled in Israel. This position is similar to Israel’s stance in the talks, which were renewed after a U.S.-hosted peace conference in November.
Palestinians insist that the refugees from fighting in 1948 and their descendants – who by U.N. estimates now number more than 4 million – be allowed to return to their original homes. Israel fears such a flood of Palestinians into its borders would endanger its existence as a Jewish state. Instead, it says refugees should be resettled in a future Palestinian state.
“The outlines of any agreement would involve ensuring that Israel remains a Jewish state,” Obama said, according to The Jerusalem Post.
President Bush hopes to get the sides to agree, by the end of 2008, on a final deal that includes the formation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
In the interview, Obama insisted that Palestinians set up a security force that can ensure militants cannot attack Israel, The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz reported. A future Palestinian state must be able “to provide the security apparatus that would prevent constant attacks against Israel from taking place,” Obama said, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Obama said he opposes talks with the Islamic militant Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from Palestinian moderates in June, until it recognizes Israel’s right to exist, Haaretz said.
In addition to their lack of familiarity with Obama, Israeli officials could be concerned by Obama’s commitment to offer Iran “carrots and sticks” on its efforts to produce nuclear weapons. Obama told the reporters that he believed there should be diplomatic contacts between low-level U.S. and Iranian officials, The Jerusalem Post reported.
Israel has strongly backed the Bush administration’s efforts to impose tighter sanctions on Iran to persuade it to drop its nuclear program. Israel fears Iran, whose president has repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction, is developing nuclear arms. Iran insists its program is for energy-producing purposes only.
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