Agence France Presse (AFP)
July 24, 2008 - 4:22pm

US presidential candidate Barack Obama vowed on Wednesday to take advantage of what he said was a window of opportunity for Middle East peace if he was elected.

“I will not wait until a few years into my term or my second term if I am elected in order to get the process moving,” Obama said in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, which has been hard-hit by Palestinian rocket and mortar fire.

“I think we have a window right now that needs to be taken advantage of.”

He said he backed Israel’s refusal to talk with the Islamist Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip, a group that the United States also boycotts as a terrorist outfit.

Addressing reporters against a backdrop of stacks of rocket casings from the near-daily attacks launched on Sderot before a truce with Hamas took effect in June, Obama said he was “deeply committed” to the peace process.

He said he shared the vision of “a strong, secure state of Israel living alongside a viable and peaceful Palestinian state.

“We must support Palestinian leaders who share this vision, including the leaders I met with today,” he said, referring to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Obama, however, said that as president he would not dictate terms of a future agreement but “facilitate and promote a meaningful, realistic, pragmatic, concrete strategy for achieving these goals”.

He also said he did not think that any of the Israeli leaders he had met on Wednesday “got any sense that I would be pressuring them to accept any kinds of concessions that would put their security at stake”.

Before speaking to reporters Obama had toured the small town of Sderot, near the Gaza border, meeting a young child who was wounded by a rocket attack and visiting a house that was destroyed.

“If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep every night I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that,” Obama said.

“I would expect Israel to do the same thing.” Asked whether Israel should negotiate with Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006 and seized power in Gaza in June 2007, he said it had to first recognise Israel and renounce violence.

“Until that point it’s hard for Israel, I think, to negotiate with a group that doesn’t recognise Israel’s right to exist as a country.”

Before leaving the podium Obama was presented with a T-shirt saying “I [heart] Sderot” with a black rocket piercing the red heart like Cupid’s arrow.

Hamas swiftly condemned his remarks from its headquarters in Gaza City a few miles away, accusing Obama of taking Israel’s side in the decades-old conflict.

“Obama’s statements give legal cover to the crimes against our people, the Judaisation of Jerusalem, and the continuing aggressions against us.” Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan told AFP.

“We in Hamas do not engage in dialogue or negotiations with the enemy because Hamas does not recognise the usurper [Israel],” he said, adding that the Islamist movement would “keep the option of [armed] resistance.”

Only a few rockets have been fired from Gaza since an Egyptian-brokered truce took effect on June 19, bringing an end to the near-daily clashes between Palestinian fighters and Israeli troops.


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