WASHINGTON — On his first day as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Sen. Barack Obama waded into a den of skepticism and asked for faith.
He assured the nation's top Israel lobby on Wednesday that no matter what they may have heard, he is committed to defending Israel at all costs, even if it means attacking Iran, and that he believes a strong Israel is good for the United States.
Speaking to 7,000 Jewish activists at the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama continued to back away from statements that he would sit down without preconditions and negotiate with the president of Iran, who has called for annihilating Israel and the United States.
But he stressed that diplomacy must be part of the overall strategy to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and said the Bush administration's talk-not approach is simply not working. He argued that the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, was wrong to insist that America's presence in Iraq is keeping Iran in check, and that, instead, the war has emboldened Iran.
"Contrary to the claims of some, I have no interest in sitting down with our adversaries just for the sake of talking," Obama said, his speech punctuated by applause and even a few standing ovations. "But as president of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing if — and only if — it can advance the interests of the United States."
He added, "I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel."
Meanwhile, Obama got a boost from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Following Obama at the AIPAC convention, Clinton spoke of her strong ties to the Jewish community and said Israel has nothing to fear from Obama.
"Let me be very clear: I know that Sen. Obama will be a good friend to Israel," she said.
The McCain campaign quickly accused Obama of flip-flopping on his intentions to negotiate with Iran and cast the junior senator as inexperienced.
McCain spoke to the group Monday.
In contests around the country, Obama has had trouble winning support in some Jewish quarters. Some of that is his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has criticized Israel for being racist and who has close ties to Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan, who has condemned the Jewish state.
But some of it isn't his fault. Hamas, the terrorist group that has repeatedly attacked Israel from Lebanon, praised Obama, which McCain called proof that Obama wouldn't be as tough as he. Anonymous e-mails falsely say Obama is a Muslim with a secret, radical agenda.
In truth, Obama has supported bipartisan policies in the Senate favoring military and other support for Israel.
Obama's half-hour speech was well-received by the crowd, mainly pro-Israel activists. Many said Obama assuaged their concerns.
They included Richard Cohn, 62, of Beverly Hills, Calif., who had backed McCain after Clinton tumbled but now says he's leaning toward Obama. "He could not have done better," he said. "I have confidence in him now."
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at [email protected] or (202) 463-0577.