JERUSALEM – Despite months of warnings by John McCain that Barack Obama’s stance toward Iran threatens Israel, political leaders in the Jewish state welcomed the Democrat’s assurances Wednesday that he would work to block Iran from acquiring nuclear arms.
Obama navigated a thicket of regional tensions on a daylong visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. But Israeli leaders across the political spectrum voiced no misgivings about his commitment to their nation’s security – above all in countering the threat from Iran.
On a day of talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Obama declared solidarity against “an Iranian regime that sponsors terrorism, pursues nuclear weapons and threatens Israel’s existence.”
“A nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat, and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama told reporters in Sderot, a rocket-battered town in southern Israel near the Gaza Strip.
Obama also traveled to the West Bank, where he spent an hour with the president and prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. They, too, gave a warm reception to the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
“He left us feeling very well, reassuring us about his commitment for peace,” said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator who escorted Obama into a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
But most remarkable about Obama’s visit was the absence of any reservations expressed by the Israelis about his openness to dialogue with Iran.
Many Israeli leaders in the past have said that such talks would help legitimize Iran and give it more time to develop nuclear weapons. But rather than emphasize those differences, even in private, several who met with Obama sounded eager to find points of agreement.
Even former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, usually a critic of talks with Iran, refrained from challenging Obama. After the two met, the right-wing opposition Likud Party leader said they agreed that “the most pressing issue concerning the foreign policies of both countries must be to prevent Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons.”
McCain’s campaign argues that Obama’s readiness to hold an “unconditional summit” with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would give him the appearance of respectability, embolden Iranian hardliners and “put the world’s security at risk.”
McCain has said he would never meet with Ahmadinejad while he is dedicated to Israel’s extinction, and his country is developing nuclear weapons and sending lethal explosives to Iraq.
McCain, who has been trying to deny Obama his party’s traditional edge among Jewish voters, reminded a crowd in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Wednesday that Ahmadinejad once called Israel a “stinking corpse.”
Obama’s visit was part of a nine-day trip abroad that has drawn intense news coverage, sparking complaints of media bias from McCain’s campaign. Obama plans stops in Berlin, Paris and London before flying home to Chicago on Saturday.