MIAMI – Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama sought Thursday to reassure Jewish voters that he was a friend of Israel as he campaigned in Florida, a key battleground in the general election.
At a meeting at Bnai Torah Synagogue in Boca Raton, north of Miami, Obama denied that he was a Muslim and asked voters not to judge him because of his "funny name" or because he was African-American, but on his policies.
Obama said he had "always been pro-Israel" and insisted his offer to talk with the leaders of Iran did not mean he did not recognize the threat that country posed to the Jewish state.
"Just because I am open to talks with Iran does not mean I am not pro-Israel," he said.
"I know how much Israel craves peace and as president I pledge to make every effort to help achieve that peace and support Israel’s right to exist and be safe," he added.
He said that direct diplomacy with Iran was "the way to begin," saying that President George W. Bush’s refusal to talk to U.S. enemies "has not worked for the past eight years and in that time Iran has gained power."
Obama said he would not talk to the leaders of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas or Lebanon’s Syrian-backed opposition, Hezbollah, but said that they had become more powerful under Bush’s watch.
"Nothing Bush has done has helped Israel. As president I would do everything in my power to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons and insist that they stop threatening Israel," he said.
People in the parking lot were handing out flyers saying Obama was a Muslim, but he said: "That’s not true."
One member of the congregation said he would vote for the senator if his name was Barry, not Barack.
"Actually, as a kid, I was called Barry. But as I got older I decided to acknowledge my Kenyan heritage and use my true name, Barack," Obama replied.
Other Jewish voters stressed that Obama’s stance on Israel was of utmost importance.
"I think that our commander in chief should not propose talks with someone who calls for the destruction of Israel," Stephen Lippy, 51, told Reuters.
"As a Jew, would I vote for a black person? Sure," said Lippy. "But … my issue is will he be the best commander in chief when it comes to assisting Israel and our other Western democratic allies."
"I think today convinced me," said Aaron Levitt, 32, a rabbi and Democrat. "I feel like he made it very clear that Israel’s at the center of his Middle East policy and would be a very important ally in his presidency."