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Confronting Questions, Obama Assures Jews of His Support
Confronting Questions, Obama Assures Jews of His Support
Faced with doubts about his support for Israel and American Jews, Senator Barack Obama has stepped up his efforts to reach out to the Jewish community over the past month, giving speeches and granting interviews to confront questions about the militant Palestinian group Hamas and his commitment to Jewish causes and values.
Tuesday, May 13,2008 13:10
by Larry Rohter New York Times

Faced with doubts about his support for Israel and American Jews, Senator Barack Obama has stepped up his efforts to reach out to the Jewish community over the past month, giving speeches and granting interviews to confront questions about the militant Palestinian group Hamas and his commitment to Jewish causes and values.

The efforts are part of "a very strong counteraction" against what the Obama campaign considers misinformation about the candidate, said Representative Robert Wexler, a Democrat from South Florida who often speaks on Jewish issues for the Obama campaign.

"We’re going to continue to keep making this case with initiatives to make it clear that his support for Israel could not be more unequivocal," Mr. Wexler said.

Since the beginning of his campaign for president, Mr. Obama has combated rumors and e-mail campaigns suggesting that he was a Muslim or was hostile to Israel, a problem exacerbated by pro-Palestinian remarks made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. But several other developments, here and abroad, have also played a role in the outreach effort.

In an interview made available on Monday on the Web site of the magazine The Atlantic, Mr. Obama responded to a statement made last month by an official of Hamas, which the State Department classifies as a terrorist organization. The official, Ahmed Yousef, said that "we like Mr. Obama and we hope that he will win the election."

Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has seized on the Hamas comments to imply that Mr. Obama is soft on terrorism and so inexperienced in foreign affairs that he would damage the security interests of the United States and Israel. But in the Atlantic interview, with the writer Jeffrey Goldberg, Mr. Obama presented himself as an unwavering supporter of Israel.

"I think that the idea of a secure Jewish state is a fundamentally just idea, and a necessary idea, given not only world history but the active existence of anti-Semitism," Mr. Obama said in the interview. "That does not mean that I would agree with every action of the state of Israel."

But, Mr. Obama continued, "the fundamental premise of Israel and the need to preserve a Jewish state that is secure is, I think, a just idea and one that should be supported here in the United States and around the world."

Asked if he thought Israel was a "drag on America"s reputation overseas," he said it was not. But he said: "What I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions." (Campaign aides said later he was clearly talking about tensions in the Middle East, not about Israel.)

The magazine interview follows recent speeches in which Mr. Obama has affirmed his support for Israel, most notably last week at an event marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel sponsored by the Israeli Embassy in Washington. On Sunday, he contributed an op-ed article to the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, the largest paper in Israel.

In a Gallup poll released last week, 61 percent of Jewish voters surveyed said they would vote for Mr. Obama if he became the Democratic nominee. In several recent elections, nearly 80 percent of Jews voted Democratic, and Mr. Wexler, the Florida congressman, said he thought Mr. Obama could approach those levels "once the Democratic Party is unified."

Contributing to Jewish discomfort is a trip that former President Jimmy Carter made last month to Egypt, Syria and Israel. Over the objections of the Bush administration and the Israeli government, Mr. Carter met in Damascus with the leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, and the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Obama has sought to distance himself from the diplomacy of Mr. Carter. The former president, who has called Mr. Obama’s candidacy "extraordinary" but has stopped short of endorsing him, has also angered Jewish leaders by using the word "apartheid" to refer to some of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

"I have a fundamental difference with President Carter and his decision to meet with Hamas," Mr. Obama said last month in a speech to Jewish leaders in Philadelphia. "We must not negotiate with a terrorist group intent on Israel’s destruction."

On Friday, Robert Malley, who was a special adviser on Arab-Israeli affairs to President Bill Clinton, severed his ties to the Obama campaign after he learned that The Times of London was preparing to publish an article disclosing direct contacts he had with Hamas. Mr. Malley is an official of the International Crisis Group, an independent nonprofit entity whose activities include gathering information on terrorist groups and conflicts.

Mr. Malley said he had been an informal adviser to the campaign. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said that description applied to "literally hundreds of people."

"He has no formal role in the campaign and will not play one in the future," Mr. Vietor said.

A senior foreign policy adviser to Mr. Obama said Mr. Malley had contributed "one paper to one of our policy teams several months ago, and that was the extent of it."

Jewish voters make up a small but important constituency in several states rich in electoral votes, like California, Florida, New York and Mr. Obama’s home state, Illinois. When Mr. Goldberg, of The Atlantic, suggested to Mr. Obama that "there seems to be in some quarters, in Florida and other places, a sense that you don’t feel Jewish worry the way a senator from New York would feel it," Mr. Obama expressed puzzlement at that perception, saying that in the black community in Chicago he had been accused of being "too close to the Jews."

"I’ve been in the foxhole with my Jewish friends," Mr. Obama said, "so when I find on the national level my commitment being questioned, it’s curious."

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