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Excerpt of Remarks in Sderot, Israel

July 23, 2008


... today, Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Fayad, when I was in Ramallah, earlier.

The threats to Israel security begin in Sderot, but they don't end there. They include outrageous acts of terror like the attack we just saw yesterday in Jerusalem. Rearming Hezbollah in Lebanon and an Iranian regime that sponsors terrorism, pursues nuclear weapons and threatens Israel's existence. A nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Today I had a series of productive discussions with many of Israel's key leaders about how to address the broad range of security threats that Israel faces and the broad threats that all of us face. I look forward to continuing these consultations with Prime Minister Olmert this evening, and I'm also looking forward to consulting closely with our European allies about Iran and other challenges in the days ahead.

Now let me just close by saying that I bring to Sderot, an unshakeable commitment to Israel's security. The state of Israel faces determined enemies who seek its destruction. But it also has a friend and ally in the United States that will always stand by the people of Israel. That's why I'm proud to be here today and that's why I will work from the moment that I return to America, to tell the story of Sderot and to make sure that the good people who live here are enjoying a future of peace and security and hope. So with that, we're going to take questions, but I might -- before everybody starts raising hands, my understanding is this gentleman right here is going to actually call on people so that I don't get in trouble with any of you. I want all of you to like me so I'm going to -- he's going to be the bad guy. He's going to make the decision, we've got a limited amount of time.

Why don't you go ahead.

QUESTION: Senator Obama, you said in OPEC convention that the (INAUDIBLE) Jerusalem could continue to be the capital city. Then you changed it and clarified later on in the -- (INAUDIBLE) wonder.

How could you be sure if your other statesmen, that you are going to be committed to the security and safety of Israel and you're not going to change it even when you're the President of the United States?

OBAMA: First of all, I didn't change my statement.

I continued to say that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel. And I have said that before and I will say it again. And I also have said that it is important that we don't simply slice the city in half. But I've also said that that's a final status issue. That's an issue that has to be dealt with with the parties involved, the Palestinians and the Israelis. And it's not the job of the United States to dictate the form in which that will take, but rather to support the efforts that are being made right now to resolve these very difficult issues that have a long history.

Now, in terms of knowing my commitments, you don't have to just look at my words, you can look at my deeds. Just this past week, we passed out of the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, which is my committee, a bill to call for divestment from Iran, as a way of ratcheting up the pressure to ensure that they don't obtain a nuclear weapon.

When Israel invaded Lebanon, in response to the kidnapping of Israel's soldiers, I was one of the first people to state that Israel had an unequivocal right to defend itself and to rescue soldiers that had been captured. And that is what any country would do. On vote after vote I have demonstrated my support of the state of Israel.

So, the way you know where somebody's going is where have they been. And I've been with Israel for many, many years now. What is also true is I believe it is strongly in the interests of Israel's security to arrive at a lasting peace with the Palestinian people. I don't think those positions are contradictory. I think they're complementary. You know, it is going to be hard for Israel over the long term and this is something that I think the vast majority of Israelis understand. That it's going to be hard to achieve true security if there's still hostile neighbors only a few miles away.

But, what I think that Israel has to do is to make sure that that peace is not purchased at -- by putting Israel's security at risk. And it's the job of the United States I think, to make sure that that peace is centered and promotes Israel's long-term security.

QUESTION: Senator, you told me yesterday that if you become president, you would tackle the issue of Middle East peace right away.

What fresh strategies would you bring and can you respond to the concerns of Israelis who feel that you might pressure them to make too many concessions? And again, what new strategies would you bring?

OBAMA: Well, I think it's -- OK. Why don't you ask your buddies to speak up louder when they're asking the question.

I'll repeat it. The question was -- what fresh strategies could be brought to the Middle East peace process? And what was the second part of it? The concerns about it -- Israel's concerns about me pressuring them into concessions.

Well, look. I don't think that Minister Livni or Minister Barak or (INAUDIBLE) or the others, President Perez, when they spoke to me today got any sense that I would be pressuring them to accept any kinds of concessions that would put their security at stake.

We don't need a peace deal just to have a piece of paper that doesn't result in peace. We need something that's meaningful. And it's not going to be meaningful if Israel's security is not part of that package. And any American president, whether it's myself or John McCain, can rest assured that Israel won't be pressured into something that is going to put them at risk. Because they have an obligation to their people.

So, my job is to -- if I'm the president, my job and my team's job is not to dictate to either of the parties what this deal should be, but hopefully to be able to facilitate and promote a meaningful, realistic, pragmatic, concrete strategy for achieving these goals. And that's why I don't want to get too specific in response to your first question because I think it's important not to predetermine in some sense what the parties are going to agree to, but rather to just set up a process in which this can occur.

I can tell you one thing that is very important, though, and that is a U.S. administration has to put its weight behind a process recognizing that it's not going to happen immediately. And that's why I can't -- I will not wait until a few years into my term or my second term if I'm elected, in order to get the process moving. I think we have a window right now that needs to be taken advantage of. I think you've got a set of moderate Palestinian leaders who are interested. I think the Israeli people are interested in moving this process along. But I also think there's a population on both sides that is becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress. And where there's hopelessness and despair, that can often turn in a bad direction.

And as I've noted in all the conversations I've had, Israel also has this enormous threat from Iran, which is connected to the situation between Hamas and Hezbollah and more moderate forces in the region. And so to the extent that we can solve this problem, it also helps us solve some of these larger problems that are not just questions of Israel's national security, but also the United States national security.

QUESTION: In the name of the Israeli colleagues, welcome to Israel.

OBAMA: Thank you.

QUESTION: You have just justified Israel's alleged attack in Syria.

Will you bear the same understanding should Israel act similarly towards Iran?

OBAMA: Well, you know, my goal is to avoid the hypothetical by moving rapidly to mobilize the international community, to offer a series of big sticks and big carrots to the Iranian regime to stand down on nuclear weapons. We have to do it now.

I don't want it to get started, should I become president. I want the Iranians to understand that they should take advantage of the shift in the Bush administration's approach where they sent one of our diplomats, William Burns, to the latest discussions with the European delegation.

Iranians need to understand that whether it's the Bush administration or an Obama administration, that this is a paramount concern to the United States. And, I think there are opportunities for us to mobilize a much more serious regime of sanctions on Iran, but also to offer them the possibility of improved relations in the international community if they stand down on these nuclear weapons.

What I have also said, though, is that I will take no options off the table in dealing with this potential Iranian threat. And understand part of my reasoning here. A nuclear Iran would be a game changing situation not just in the Middle East, but around the world. Whatever remains of our nuclear non-proliferation framework, I think would begin to disintegrate. You would have countries in the Middle East who would see the potential need to also obtain nuclear weapons.

Many of these countries, including Iran, have ties to terrorist organizations. Which means that suddenly you could have loose nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists. That is our single- most important threat both to Israel but also to the United States of America. And so this is something that we're going to spend a lot of time working on.

QUESTION: In your first year as president, with president Ahmadinejad, without preconditions, is there anything you have heard today, in your discussions with Israeli leaders that has made you rethink that pledge? Or are you still standing by that?

OBAMA: Dan, I think you have to take a look at what the question was in South Carolina and how I responded.

The question is, would I meet with leaders without preconditions in pursuit...


OBAMA: I understand. I understand.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) ... in your first year as president.

OBAMA: But I think that what I said in response was that I would, at my time and choosing, be willing to meet with any leader if I thought it would promote the national security interests of the United States of America.

And, Dan, that continues to be my position. That if I think that I can get a deal that is going to advance our cause, then I would consider that opportunity.

But what I also said was that there is a difference between meeting without pre-conditions and meeting without preparation. You know, the specific context of your question let's say with respect to Iran, is a Bush administration policy, for example, that said, we will not involve ourselves in any diplomatic negotiations or even talks with the Iranians until they have made the decision to stand down on their nuclear weapons. Well, that presumably would be the topic of negotiations. And if we take that position, then it's not surprising that we might not make much progress on that front.

My whole goal in terms of having tough, serious, direct diplomacy, is not because I'm naive of the nature of any of these regimes. I'm not. It is because if we show ourselves willing to talk and to offer carrots and sticks in order to deal with these pressing problems. And if Iran then rejects any overtures of that sort, it puts us in a stronger position to mobilize the international community to ratchet up the pressure on Iran.

Our unwillingness to talk or the perception that we are trying to bully our way through negotiations, that's eliminated as an excuse for them not dealing with these issues in an appropriate way. And so you know, I think that it is very important for us to exhaust every possible avenue to solve this problem and to send the signal to the international community that this is a top priority. We are willing to extend ourselves and work hard to solve this problem. But what we're not willing to do is to permit a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.



Would you accept a situation like this in one of the American towns stuck in the states (INAUDIBLE)?

Do you think Israel should negotiate with Hamas in Gaza?

OBAMA: I don't think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on the heads of their citizens.

The first job of any nation state is to protect its citizens. And so I can assure you that if -- I don't even care if I was a politician. If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.

In terms of negotiations with Hamas, it is very hard to negotiate with a group that is not representative of a nation state, does not recognize your right to exist, has consistently used terror as a weapon, and is deeply influenced by other countries. I think that Hamas leadership will have to make a decision at some point as to whether it is a serious political party seeking to represent the aspirations of the Palestinian people. And, as a consequence, willing to recognize Israel's right to exist and renounce violence as a tool to achieve its aims. Or whether it wants to continue to operate as a terrorist organization. Until that point, it's hard for Israel, I think, to negotiate with a country that -- or with a group that doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist at a country -- OK.

Thank you very much, everybody. I appreciate it.

Barack Obama, Excerpt of Remarks in Sderot, Israel Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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