WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Tuesday tried to reassure Jewish voters concerned about his Muslim ties, arguing that his commitment to Israel's security is unwavering.
Speaking to the National Jewish Democratic Council, the Illinois senator said his experience living in Indonesia for four years as a child and his ability to speak to Muslims could make him a better president.
"If I go to Jakarta and address the largest Muslim country on earth, I can say, 'Apa kabar,' — you know, 'How are you doing?' — and they can recognize that I understand their common humanity," Obama said. "That is a strength, and it allows me to say things to them that other presidents might not be able to say. And that's part of what's promising, I think, about this presidency."
Obama's stepfather was Indonesian, and the future senator lived in the country from ages 6 to 10.
Obama was one of six Democratic presidential candidates to speak to the council during its three-day conference at the Almas Temple in downtown Washington.
His comments came after an audience member, Robert Seidemann of West Palm Beach, Fla., asked the Illinois lawmaker about his fast rise to prominence and his support among Muslims and Arab-Americans.
"We are obviously friends with all of them," Seidemann said. "However, when it comes to Israel and push comes to shove, how can you make us, as Jews, totally comfortable in addressing the issues in Israel and moving toward what no president has been able to do and that is establish a peace?"
Obama said he has probably gotten more support from Jewish donors, although he actively seeks support from Muslim Americans as well. But he said those Jews who have known him the longest would testify "that I haven't just talked the talk, I've walked the walk when it comes to Israel's security."
Obama said while he is committed to protecting Israel's security, he would also reach out to Arab leaders who are committed to recognizing Israel and renouncing violence. He did not repeat the statement he made last month while campaigning in Iowa — that he supports relaxing restrictions on aid to the Palestinian people if their leaders renounced terrorism and recognized Israel. "Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people," Obama said at the time.
A reporter followed Obama out of the building and asked him about that statement. He did not answer but left in his car for the Capitol.
Seidemann said he was a little disappointed that Obama didn't mention the aid to the Palestinians. He said Obama's position on the Middle East was a cause of concern, but he's open to listening to him further and may end up supporting him in the primary.