PHILADELPHIA - Senator Barack Obama yesterday criticized former president Jimmy Carter for meeting with leaders of the Islamic terrorist group Hamas as he tried to reassure Jewish voters that his candidacy is not a threat to them or to US support for Israel.
The Democratic presidential candidate's comments, made to a group of Jewish leaders in Philadelphia, were his first on Carter's controversial meeting this week in Egypt. The presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, had called on Obama to repudiate Carter in a speech Monday.
Obama said yesterday he had a fundamental disagreement with Carter, who was rebuffed by Israeli leaders during a peace mission to the Middle East this week and who has hinted that he supports Obama.
"We must not negotiate with a terrorist group intent on Israel's destruction," Obama said. "We should only sit down with Hamas if they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel's right to exist, and abide by past agreements."
Obama told the Jewish leaders he would work as president to diminish tensions between the black and Jewish communities, noting that both groups shared the experience of suffering discrimination. He also said at the meeting that he is willing to make diplomatic overtures to Iran even though it has funded Hamas and other militant groups.
The Illinois senator has been working to reassure Jewish voters who are nervous about his candidacy following the controversy surrounding anti-Israel sentiments expressed by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and criticism from Hillary Clinton during a February debate that he hadn't immediately rejected an endorsement from black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan. Obama responded that he already denounced Farrakhan but would reject his support as well.
Obama told the group yesterday that he had not been aware of Wright's more incendiary speeches before launching his presidential campaign last year, even though he had been a member of Wright's congregation nearly 20 years. Obama said he had spoken to Wright and privately conveyed his concerns about some of his sermons once he learned of their content.
"You make a decision about how are you going to handle it," Obama said. "Do you publicly denounce his comments? Do you privately express concern but recognize you are still part of a broader church community that is going to be transitioning? I chose the latter."
Obama has stepped up his outreach to the Jewish community in recent weeks after videos surfaced in which Wright criticizes Israel and expresses sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
Among other things, Wright has denounced Israel as racist and suggested tension between Israel and the Palestinians had contributed to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Obama, who also met privately with about 100 Jewish leaders in Ohio before that state's primary March 4, has been the subject of persistent Internet rumors suggesting he is a Muslim who was educated at a madrassah in Indonesia and took the oath of office in the Senate with his hand on a Koran. Obama did spend part of his childhood in Indonesia but attended Catholic and public schools there. He took the oath of office on a Bible.