SDEROT, Israel (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama assured Israel and its U.S. Jewish supporters on Wednesday he was a friend who would not press for peace concessions that would compromise its security.
Hailing Israel as a “miracle”, he vowed staunch support and held only a low-profile meeting with Palestinian leaders in the occupied West Bank.
Obama, seeking to allay wariness among some U.S. Jewish voters about his policy towards Israel, flew to Sderot, a town hit by rockets fired from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, saying he hoped to bring peace but would not dictate the terms of a deal.
“I am here to say as an American and as a friend of Israel that we stand with the people of Sderot and all of the people of Israel,” Obama told reporters in the town’s police station, with mounds of empty rocket casings stacked behind him.
Republican candidate John McCain visited Sderot in March but did not go to the West Bank. Rocket fire on Sderot has largely stopped since a ceasefire with Hamas went into effect in June.
In an apparent jab at U.S. President George W. Bush’s last-minute efforts to secure peace before leaving office, Obama said he would not “wait a few years into my term or my second term if I’m elected” to press for a deal.
“We don’t need a peace deal just to have a piece of paper,” he said. “We need something that’s meaningful.”
Israel and the Palestinians launched U.S.-backed talks in November aiming to reach a deal by the end of 2008. But Israeli officials have said any accord would likely provide only a framework for statehood and would not be implemented for years.
Obama brushed aside critics who fear he may pressure Israel to make concessions.
He said he did not believe that Israeli leaders came away from his meetings with them with “any sense that I would be pressuring them to accept any kinds of concessions that would put their security at stake”.
The Illinois senator, meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem earlier, described Israel as a “miracle that has blossomed” over 60 years. Wearing a Jewish skullcap, he laid a white wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum.
Avoiding turning a trip to the West Bank into a high-profile visit that could alienate Jewish voters, Obama made no statement in Ramallah after his hour-long meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
But meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert later for dinner, he told reporters that he had found among the Palestinians “a strong sense that progress is being made and honest conversations are taking place” in the peace talks.
“Indeed, that’s right,” answered Olmert, who has pursued several diplomatic initiatives even as a corruption probe threatens to force him from office.
Hundreds of helmeted Palestinian security officers with automatic rifles lined Ramallah’s streets as Obama drove into the city from Jerusalem. His motorcade passed Israel’s towering West Bank barrier and hilltop Jewish settlements en route.
Obama urged support for Abbas and Fayyad, who support a two-state solution to the conflict, and played down the chances of negotiating with their Hamas rivals unless the Islamist group renounced violence and recognized Israel’s right to exist.
Last month, Obama dismayed Palestinian leaders when he said that Jerusalem should be Israel’s “undivided” capital.
Palestinians want Arab East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, as the capital of a future state. Obama later said he used “poor phrasing” when he made the remarks.
An Obama aide said Iran’s nuclear program and the peace process dominated his discussions with Israeli leaders, while the Palestinians focused on the negotiations with Israel and aid for their economy.
Obama, in his remarks in Sderot, said: “A nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
The candidate arrived in Israel just hours after a Palestinian rammed a bulldozer into vehicles on a busy Jerusalem street near the hotel booked for his stay. The attacker wounded at least 16 people before being shot dead.
Additional reporting by Adam Entous and Joseph Nasr in Jerusalem, Wafa Amr in Ramallah; Writing by Rebecca Harrison and Adam Entous; Editing by Richard Williams