Over the past few weeks, his rivals have spread rumors that Obama attended a madrasa (Islamic religious school) in Indonesia, which served as a terrorist training camp.
On Tuesday Obama provided written answers to questions presented by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily newspaper. In this exclusive interview, he presents his views on Israel, the Palestinians and Iran.
Senator Obama, Two years ago you visited Israel for the first time. What were your
impressions of this visit and did you learn something about our country that you did not know?
My travels in Israel in 2006 left a lasting impression on me. I have long understood Israel's great dilemma, its need for security in a difficult neighborhood and its quest for peace with its neighbors. But there is no substitute for meeting the people of Israel, seeing the terrain, experiencing the powerful contrast of a beautiful, holy land that faces the constant threat of deadly violence. The people of Israel show their courage and commitment to democracy every day that they board a bus, or kiss their children goodbye, or argue about politics in a local cafe.
For many years, Israel has considered the occupant of the White House a very good friend. Will this friendship continue if you become president?
Absolutely yes. I will carry with me to the White House and unshakeable commitment to the security of Israel and the friendship between the United States and Israel. The US-Israel relationship is rooted in shared interests, shared values, shared history, and in deep friendship among our people. It is supported by a strong bipartisan consensus that I am proud to be a part of, and I will work tirelessly as president to uphold and enhance the friendship between the two countries.
During your campaign, you have said you would start new aggressive efforts to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. What is your plan and why do you believe you could succeed when so many American presidents have failed?
I know how much Israelis crave peace. I know that Prime Minister Olmert was elected with a mandate to pursue it. I pledge to make every effort to help Israel achieve that peace, although I will not try to dictate its terms.
The principles that will guide me are 1) that Israel's security must be guaranteed; 2) that the status quo is unsustainable over time, and the best long-term guarantee of Israel's security is a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians, if it can be achieved; and 3) that Israel has to remain a Jewish state and the Palestinian state must be viable.
But success is not guaranteed. Israel must have confidence that the Palestinian leadership is both committed to peace and is able to follow through on its commitments. So the approach we have to take with respect to negotiations is that you sit down and talk, but you have to suspend trust until you can see that the Palestinian side can follow through. That is a position I have consistently taken and will take with me to the White House.
You have said you would be ready to talk to "enemy leaders." Some Israelis are skeptical that just by speaking with the leaders of Iran, you could prevent them from producing a nuclear weapon. If diplomacy fails, would you support using force against Iran, as Israel did against Iraq in 1981?
I don't believe that diplomacy alone will stop the Iranians from pursuing nuclear weapons. I believe it will require all facets of our national power to achieve this important goal. The gravest threat to Israel today comes from Iran, where a radical regime continues to pursue the ability to build a nuclear weapon, and continues its support for terrorism across the region. (Iranian) President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad continues his offensive denials of the Holocaust, and his disturbing denunciations of Israel; recently he referred to Israel as a "deadly microbe" and a "savage animal." Threats of Israel's destruction cannot be dismissed as rhetoric.
The threat from Iran is real, and my goal as President will be to eliminate it. Ending the war in Iraq will be an important step toward achieving this goal, because it will increase our flexibility and our credibility when we deal with Iran. Make no mistake; Iran has been the biggest strategic beneficiary of the war in Iraq, and I intend to change that.
My approach to Iran will be based upon aggressive diplomacy. I will not take the military option off the table. But I also believe that under this administration, we have seen the threat grow worse, and I intend to change that course.
The time has come to talk directly to the Iranians, and to lay out our clear terms: an end to their pursuit of nuclear weapons; an end to their support of terrorism; and an end to their threats against Israel and other countries in the region. To achieve this goal, I believe that we must be prepared to offer incentives: like the prospect of better relations and integration in the international community; as well as disincentives: like the prospect of increased sanctions.
I would seek these sanctions through the United Nations, and encourage our friends in Europe and the Gulf to use their economic leverage against Iran outside of the UN. I believe we will be in a stronger position to achieve these tough international sanctions if the United States shows that we are willing to come to the table. And I would continue the work that I have started in the Senate by enacting my legislation to make it easier for states to divest their pension funds from Iran.
Some people in Israel and some Jewish American leaders have expressed concern that you would be more sympathetic to the Arab side because of your Muslim background. How do you respond to this argument?
First it is important to establish the facts. Here are the facts: I am not a Muslim and I never have been. I never attended a madrasa. I did not take my oath of office on a Koran. I am a committed Christian. I lived in Indonesia for four years as a child, where I attended secular schools. I took my oath of office on our family Bible.
People who know the facts are not worried about my commitment to Israel's security and the U.S.-Israel relationship. I have overwhelming support among the Jewish community that knows me best, which is the Jewish community in Chicago. It may be that my family roots in Africa and my childhood experience in Indonesia give me some insights that allow me to practice effective diplomacy in the Muslim world. I certainly hope so. And that ability can be used to benefit American interests and Israel's security, and, I hope, help build a better relationship between both our countries and the Muslim world.
Senator Obama, there are some in Israel who are leaking stories that Israel would have reason to be concerned if you are elected president. How would you respond to this anxiety among some critics that your election might not be good for Israel?
I understand that I am not as well-known as some other candidates, so people might have questions about my positions on many issues. What I have found is that when Israelis, and Jewish Americans, and others who care about Israel learn about my view, my record, and my proposals, they are extremely supportive. I have a strong record of supporting Israel in every office I have ever held, and nothing will change about that when I am president.