Obama calls Iran threat to U.S., Israel
By John McCormick
Tribune staff reporter
March 2, 2007

Seeking to woo Jewish votes and contributions, Sen. Barack Obama told an
audience in Chicago Friday that he considers Iran "one of the greatest
threats to the United States, Israel and world peace" and pledged he would
try to end that nation's uranium enrichment program.

As he criticized the Bush administration's Iraq policies, the Democratic
presidential candidate suggested that the danger posed by neighboring Iran
has grown in recent years because of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

"One of the most profound consequences of the administration's failed
strategy in Iraq has been to strengthen Iran's strategic position, reduce
U.S. credibility and influence in the region, and place Israel and other
nations friendly to the United States in greater peril," Obama (D-Ill.) said
before a regional gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee,
a major pro-Israel lobbying group.

In advance of the group's national conference later this month in
Washington, where Obama will court donors one-on-one, his campaign had been
looking for a friendly audience to make a major policy speech on U.S.-Israel
policy.

By speaking to about 800 of the committee's members at the Sheraton Chicago
Hotel & Towers, Obama was able to reaffirm his support of Israel, as voters
consider the early presidential field. Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary
Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) made a similar speech to the group's members in her
home state on Feb. 1.

Despite the eagerness of local news crews for him to comment on the topic,
Obama made no mention of a revelation reported Friday by the Baltimore Sun
that he has white ancestors who owned slaves. A spokesman also said he would
not be taking any media questions.

Racial issues will again be at the forefront Sunday, as the senator appears
in Alabama to deliver the keynote address at an event that commemorates the
1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march, an occasion that will also
attract Clinton and her husband, the nation's 42nd president. Before his
departure, Obama will headline a major labor rally in Chicago Saturday
morning.

Like labor, the Jewish community is an essential constituency for any
Democrat running for the White House. John Green, a senior fellow with the
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said research suggests it is not
uncommon for Jews to represent as much as 20 percent of the donors in a
presidential primary.

"Jews are strong Democrats as a group and are a very important source of
money for presidential candidates," he said. "This is a pretty significant
financial constituency."
Green said Jews represent only small part of the total electorate, but can
also play a key role in swing states such as Florida. "In a close election,
this is a critical bloc," he said.

Although Green said Obama might struggle to differentiate himself from
Clinton on social issues, his early opposition to the war in Iraq could
help.

"Jews are particularly opposed to President Bush's positions in Iraq," he
said. "She has had a little bit of a different policy position on the war in
Iraq and that is a place where he could distinguish himself from her."

Rabbi Ira Youdovin, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis,
said some Jews were initially supportive of efforts to remove Saddam Hussein
when reports of weapons of mass destruction were credible and Israel could
be a target. "Today, there is far less approval and a sense that maybe the
war wasn't a good idea," he said.

Josh Block, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee,
said Jewish voters lean mostly Democratic, but that the group is not
monolithic in its support for the party.

"It requires nurturing," he said. "It can't be taken for granted."

In one of many lines that drew applause, Obama called for "fully funding
military assistance" for Israel and continued work on missile defense
programs. "And when Israel is attacked, we must stand up for Israel's
legitimate right to defend itself," he said.

Obama focused much of his speech on Iran, but stressed the need for greater
communication among all players in the region. "My plan includes a robust
regional diplomatic strategy that includes talking to Syria and Iran 
something this administration has finally embraced," he said.

Earlier this week, Obama also met with family members of kidnapped Israeli
soldier Ehud Goldwasser in Washington.

Jeff Simon, a financial planner from Northbrook who attended the speech,
said the senator hit all the right notes for his audience.

"He touched on all the key issues," he said. "He said the right things."