JERUSALEM (AFP) – Barack Obama headed for Europe Thursday after vowing to forge an “unshakeable” bond with Israel if elected the next US president and stressing the need to head off the “grave threat” of a nuclear Iran.
The Democratic White House hopeful paid a brief visit to the Wailing Wall before leaving Ben Gurion airport for Germany on the European leg of his international tour.
In an interview with the daily Haaretz Thursday, he called on Israelis and Palestinians to act quickly for a settlement.
“I have had in-depth discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and encouraged all of them to make as much progress as they can in their negotiations this year,” he said.
“The next US administration should help the parties build on the progress that has been made thus far, and continue to work toward the goal of the two states living side by side in peace and security.”
Obama, who had already visited Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq and Jordan, heads on to a three-stop tour of Europe, beginning in Berlin on Thursday.
Obama hailed Israel as a “miracle” as he courted Jewish voters at home, taking pains to stress he understood the security fears of the Jewish state and would not push it into a peace deal.
“I bring here an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security,” Obama said Wednesday, after a day meeting top Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, opposition Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu, and President Shimon Peres.
Olmert, hosting Obama for dinner, replied that the presidential hopeful was following a tradition of the “great friends of Israel.”
“I know how friendly you are, and I know how much you care for us,” Olmert said.
The Illinois senator also tried to convince the Palestinians, during a short trip to see the conflict from the other side, on the occupied West Bank, that he would sponsor a vigorous peace effort if elected.
Obama picked his way through the tricky currents of Middle Eastern politics on the latest leg of a high-profile international tour meant to assuage fears among some US voters that he lacks experience on the global stage.
The senator reiterated his vow to stop Iran developing a nuclear weapon, but defended his offer of talks with leaders from the Islamic Republic, promising to use “big carrots and big sticks.”
“A nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said, as he visited the southern Israeli town of Sderot, long in the firing line of rockets from Gaza.
Olmert said during his talks with Obama that Israel expected Iran to have the nuclear weapon “by the end of 2009 or the start of 2010 at the latest,” Israeli public radio reported.
Obama however refused to budge on his offer to talk to Iranian leaders, which has sparked consternation among some in Israel, and drew charges that he is naive by his Republican rival John McCain.
Obama held just over an hour of talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas after sweeping into heavily guarded Ramallah in a motorcade.
“I will not wait until a few years into my term or my second term if I am elected in order to get the process moving,” Obama said of Middle East peace efforts.
“I think we have a window right now that needs to be taken advantage of.”
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP that Obama told Abbas “if he wins the election in the United States he will be a full and positive partner in the peace process and will not lose a single moment in pursuing it.”
Obama also said that he had not backed down from his comment that Jerusalem should not be divided, which he made before the US Jewish lobby last month, sparking anger among Palestinians.
“I have not changed my statement,” Obama told reporters in Sderot after touring the home of a family in which a young boy lost a leg to a rocket fired by Palestinian militants from nearby Gaza.
“I continue to say that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel. I have said it before and will say it again… but I’ve also said that it is a final status issue” that must be decided by negotiation.
Obama’s original comment was seen by some observers as prejudging final status peace talks, and his campaign has since said that it was poorly worded.
The senator also said he stood by Israel’s refusal to negotiate with Hamas, which the United States and European Union consider a terrorist group.
“It is very hard to negotiate with a group that is not representative of a nation state, does not recognise your right to exist, has consistently used terror as a weapon and is deeply influenced by other countries,” he said.
US polls showed Obama has yet to lock in an overwhelming advantage among the normally solid Democratic bloc of American Jewish voters, just over three months before the US election.
Earlier, the Democratic senator toured the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem to the six million Jews who perished under the Nazis.