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Obama seeks to soothe pro-Israel lobby

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

Barack Obama has declared an 'unshakeable commitment' to Israeli security

To the sound of dramatic music, in front of hundreds of pro-Israel lobbyists, the next speaker at the Aipac (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee) conference was introduced with lavish praise.

"Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to welcome a genuine friend of Israel and of Aipac, a steadfast supporter of the US-Israel relationship."

If anyone had any doubts about Senator Barack Obama's support for Israel, the introduction by Lee Rosenberg, a member of the board of directors of the Aipac, was clearly meant to dissipate them.

For months now, Republicans have attacked Mr Obama for saying that he would hold talks with the leader of Iran - they claim it shows he is weak on security. Some also insist on using his middle name Hussein, or wilfully refer to him as "Osama".

When Mr Obama took to the podium, he was aware he was facing a tough audience, so he tried a joke.

"I know that some of you have been receiving provocative e-mails that have been circulated throughout the Jewish communities across the country," said Mr Obama.

I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally, Israel
Barack Obama

"They're filled with tall tales and dire warnings about a certain candidate for president. And all I want to say is: Let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty scary."

He only got a few muted laughs from an audience still unsure what to make of him. Some were maybe thinking that he was scary - wasn't he the one who said he would talk to the leader of Iran, a man who recently described Israel as a "stinking corpse"?

In recent weeks, Mr Obama has sought to qualify his statement about talks with Iran.

So when he mentioned diplomacy, he described it as tough, aggressive and principled. He said the talks would take place at "a time and place of my choosing, if and only if it can advance the interests of the United States".

He sounded uncompromising on Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, everything," he repeated, drawing much applause.

Jerusalem pledge

Mr Obama has often said that it's not because he's open to talks with Iran that he's not pro-Israel. But he has certainly been trying to emphasise his credentials as a supporter of Israel.

He talked about his great uncle who helped liberate parts of the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald at the end of World War II, and described the relationship between the US and Israel as sacrosanct.

"Let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally, Israel. Do not be confused."

DELEGATE COUNT
Winner: Needs 2,118 delegates
Super-delegates: Obama, 389; Clinton, 282
Total delegates: Obama, 2,154; Clinton, 1,919
South Dakota and Montana (early results): Obama, 15; Clinton, 13
Source: AP projections at 1000 GMT on 4 June

Some commentators described the speech as downright hawkish.

But - as for any US presidential candidate speaking to Aipac - it is perhaps a necessary rite of passage, and in Mr Obama's case it was designed to help ease the minds of potential Jewish voters, fend off future Republican attacks and possibly even undo the support he has received from unwelcome sources.

"Any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel's identity as a Jewish state, with secure, recognised, defensible borders. And Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and must remain undivided," he said to rapturous clapping and cheering.

He drew fire from the Palestinians this time, and the militant group Hamas - which had once said it liked Mr Obama - saw this as proof the "US is hostile to Arab and Muslims".

It was an important opportunity to connect with the Jewish community
Susan Davis, Aipac conference attendant

Republicans had ridiculed the Illinois senator for being endorsed by radicals, but he has now in a way been "un-endorsed".

More worryingly perhaps, the presumptive Democratic nominee was criticised by moderate Palestinians negotiating peace with the Israelis, including President Mahmoud Abbas.

Jerusalem, one of the thorniest files in the peace negotiations, was annexed by Israel in 1967.

The international community does not recognise Israel's claim over the whole city, and officially the Palestinians, the Israelis and the Bush administration believe that the question of Jerusalem should be solved in the negotiations.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said "(Senator Obama) has closed all doors to peace."

But it's in the US that Mr Obama will be looking for votes, and in the Aipac crowd the speech seemed to have gone down well.

"It was an important opportunity to connect with the Jewish community, it was a very moving speech," said Susan Davis.

Another attendant said: "This confirms what a lot of people have been telling me that he's going to be one of the strongest presidents on Israel."

'Naive'

Others probably remain unconvinced, and this includes Republican nominee Senator John McCain.

In a statement from his campaign HQ, Mr McCain again referred to Mr Obama as "naive".

Mr Obama may have passed the Aipac test in Washington, but he has yet to face the onslaught of the Republican campaign machine.

They will probably continue to call him inexperienced, and say that his views are dangerous for Israel and the US.

This was the just the start of what will be a five-month-long relentless scrutiny of the young senator's foreign policy.


Electoral College votes

Winning post 270
Obama - Democrat
365
McCain - Republican
173
Select from the list below to view state level results.

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