A two-time U.S. ambassador to Israel and former Clinton administration adviser strongly encouraged members of Richmond's Jewish community on Thursday to support Sen. Barack Obama for president -- an endorsement that goes against long-established Jewish support for Republican candidates.
The ambassador, Martin Indyk, said Obama would attempt to eliminate Iran's production of nuclear weapons -- a move that could threaten Israel and the United States' security. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map."
"I was impressed by his understanding of the threat Iran poses to America and Israeli interests," Indyk said.
Jewish support for Republican candidates comes from the view that they are stronger on foreign policy than Democrats, Indyk said, a particularly salient point for Jews concerned about Iran's threats against Israel. Presidential candidates' stances on Israel-related issues have been important in determining which candidate the Jewish community has voted for.
Indyk spoke at the Carole and Marcus Weinstein Jewish Community Center, addressing about 100 people, many of whom wore Obama campaign buttons written in Hebrew or who signed up to canvas for Obama before taking their seats.
Indyk said Obama was committed to defending Israel, and Jewish voters had become an important voting bloc, especially in swing states such as Virginia.
Indyk is a former Hilary Clinton supporter who eventually backed Obama after she conceded the primary election and encouraged her supporters to vote for the Illinois senator -- a position bolstered by Obama's proposals about Israel, he said.
Several audience members voiced concern with recent e-mails and phone calls that had circulated to Jewish leaders claiming that some of Obama's closest advisers -- including Robert Malley, Susan Rice and The Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- have anti-Israeli views. Indyk said those reports were exaggerated or untrue.
"In the end, it's the judgment of the president that's going to count," he said. "The man that will be [Obama's] closest adviser is Joe Biden," who has served on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and is known for his strong support of Israel.
Members of Obama's campaign staff at the rally said questions about Obama's advisers were one of the main reasons they felt it was important to host a forum.
"A lot of false information has been circulated, and [the committee that organized the event] wanted to get the truth out," one campaign staff member said.
Campaign workers distributed sheets about Obama's stance on Israel that included information about his visits to the country and questions about his advisers. According to that information, most of the names mentioned in the e-mails and phone calls were not part of Obama's campaign staff, or do not provide Obama advice about Israel.
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Obama has said he would directly negotiate with Iran. Indyk said the Bush administration's refusal to negotiate until Iran has met preconditions -- including the suspension of nuclear enrichment programs -- had created problems and encouraged the regime to continue producing enriched uranium.
Iran currently has at least 4,000 nuclear enrichment centrifuges operating, Indyk said. By the end of 2009 -- the first year of the next president's term -- Iran could have enough uranium to produce between one and three nuclear weapons, he said.
"That becomes a game changer," Indyk said. "Obama would not take force off the table. He would do everything in his power to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons."
Indyk said Obama knew that peace was needed for Israel to prosper and that the Bush administration had not committed itself to stopping violence and terrorism in Israel.
"Three thousand people in Israel and Palestine died on George W. Bush's watch while he stood on the sidelines," Indyk said. "To me, that's unforgivable. But what's more unforgivable is that we in the Jewish community said George W. Bush was the greatest friend we'd ever had."
Indyk also said Obama would help Israel make peace with Syria, something he criticized the Bush administration for failing to do.
Although Indyk initially had doubts about supporting Obama because of his limited record on Israel, Obama's two trips there, along with speeches and interviews, had convinced him that Obama was committed to the country.
"I use a 'babysitter test' when it comes to Israel," Indyk said. "Do I trust this man or woman with my child? Will he or she be in the trenches when it really counts?
Indyk closed by saying Obama would be a great president for the Jewish community and a great president for Israel. Indyk's speech received long applause.
During a question-and-answer session, Indyk said the threat from terrorist groups in Israel and throughout the Middle East would decrease because people had a more positive perception of Obama than Bush.
"Barack Obama is not just a rock star in Israel and Europe," Indyk said. "He grabs the attention of Arabs. For them, [Obama's election] means the things they like most about America -- our values -- have triumphed over the things they hate most about America, which were represented by George W. Bush's policies."
Contact staff writer Emily Baltz at firstname.lastname@example.org
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