Security is paramount, Obama tells Israel

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Barack Obama repeatedly promised Israel's leaders yesterday that its security would remain "paramount" while he promoted efforts to resolve their conflict with the Palestinians early in his first term if elected.

The Democratic nominee went out of his way to reassure Israelis and Jewish voters in the US that an Obama presidency would even strengthen "the historic and special relationship" between the two countries – "one that cannot be broken".

Mr Obama also sought to allay Israeli anxieties about his willingness to meet Iranian leaders if he thought it would serve US interests. A nuclear Iran would be a "game-changing situation" that "would pose a grave threat, and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," he said.

Standing in front of a symbolic display of exploded Qassam rockets at the police station in Sderot, which has borne the brunt of attacks from Gaza, Mr Obama declared: "America must always stand up for Israel's right to defend itself against those who threaten its people"

Mr Obama was frank in a CBS interview earlier about partly using his 24-hour trip to Israel – punctuated by an hour-long visit to Ramallah for talks with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – to counterbalance support among Israelis for his rival John McCain by making clear his own "abiding commitment" to Israel's security.

But while reassuring top Israeli ministers – and the right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu – that he would never pressure Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians that compromised its security, he left himself room for an active role in the negotiating process.

He added: "What is also true is that I believe that it is strongly in the interest of Israel's security to arrive at a lasting peace with the Palestinian people. I don't think those positions are contradictory. I think they are complementary."

And while insisting that the US could not "dictate" terms to the parties, he made clear – in an unspoken contrast with both Presidents Clinton and George W Bush – that he would not wait "until a few years into my term or my second term... in order to get the process moving." Adding that there was a "window right now that needs to be taken advantage of" because of willingness for a deal in the Palestinian leadership and the Israeli public, he warned: "I also think there's a population on both sides that is becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress, and where there's hopelessness and despair, that can often turn in a bad direction." He said it would be "hard" to negotiate with Hamas while it rejected Israel and espoused attacks on its citizens.

Having alarmed Palestinians by his earlier declaration – which he then all but retracted – that Jerusalem would be the "undivided" capital of Israel, he yesterday made clear that the future of the city, which Palestinian negotiators insist must also be their capital, was a matter for discussion between the two sides.

Kadoura Fares, a senior Fatah figure in the West Bank, still complained that the "correction" was not enough. And a Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, complained that the candidate "wants to go to the White House through Tel Aviv, at the expense of the Palestinians".

That charge is unlikely to worry the Obama campaign, which was thrown on to the defensive after another Hamas official, Ahmed Yousef, said earlier this year that he hoped the senator would win the presidential election. Signing the visitor's book at the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial museum earlier in the day, the senator wrote: "At a time of great peril and torment, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man's potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world."