WASHINGTON - In his first speech as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama pledged unwavering support for Israel, vowed to use military force - if necessary - to keep Iran in check, and endorsed the idea that any peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians must preserve Israel as a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital.
As president, "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," Obama told a standing-room-only crowd at a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful grass-roots lobbying group. "Let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel."
But Obama insisted that US military force is a last resort, only after every diplomatic avenue has been exhausted. And he defended his support for direct talks between the United States and Iran at the time and place of his choosing.
"We have no time to waste," Obama said. "We cannot unconditionally rule out an approach that could prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
Obama's speech was crucial for a candidate who has struggled to persuade key blocs of skeptical Jewish voters to back him.
Some of them disagree with his willingness to talk directly with Iran, while others are suspicious of Obama's past association with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the retired pastor at Obama's former church in Chicago. Wright has praised Louis Farrakhan, a leader of the Black Nation of Islam who has made remarks considered anti-Semitic - remarks Obama has condemned.
Yesterday, Obama addressed another challenge in his effort to court Jewish voters: bogus e-mails alleging that he is a Muslim who harbors ill will toward Israel. "Let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama," he deadpanned, "because he sounds pretty scary."
Obama scolded presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, saying he made "willful mischaracterizations" of Obama's position when addressing the same audience on Monday. In that speech, McCain said that withdrawing troops from Iraq - Obama's signature issue - will embolden Iran, and said Obama's willingness to meet with Iranian leaders would produce only "an earful of anti-Semitic rants."
Obama hit back yesterday, saying McCain failed to support a bill that encourages divestment in companies that do business with Iran. Obama also said the war in Iraq that McCain supports has made Iran only more powerful and dangerous.
McCain "criticizes my willingness to use strong diplomacy, but offers only an alternative reality, one where the war in Iraq has somehow put Iran on its heels," he said. "The truth is the opposite."
Like McCain, Obama said his presidency would grant economic incentives to Iran if the regime changes its belligerent behavior, and both have endorsed tougher sanctions if Iran does not. But Obama parted ways with current US policy by saying he would strongly back Israel's decision to negotiate with Syria.
If elected, Obama said, he will help broker a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians right away. The crowd was largely silent when he called on Israel to help foster peace by refraining from building settlements on what is widely considered Palestinian land, and by allowing the Palestinians more freedom of movement.
"The Palestinians need a state that is contiguous and cohesive, and that allows them to prosper," he said, to tepid applause. "But any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel's identity as a Jewish state, with secure, recognized, and defensible borders."
The audience leapt to its feet for a standing ovation when Obama added, "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."
Obama pledged to continue the Bush administration's plan to give Israel $30 billion in assistance over the next 10 years. He also suggested that the United States should treat Israel as though it were a NATO ally when it comes to arms sales.
"It was the speech he had to make," said one Jewish political advocate, who asked not to be identified because she works for a nonpartisan organization.
At the same time, Gaith Al-Omari, a former aide to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, said some Jewish voters may need more convincing.
"There will continue to be voices that attack him, but he has made his case," Omari said.
Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, said he didn't "believe a word" of Obama's pro-Israel pledges.
But Obama appeared to connect with many in the audience. What began as polite applause grew throughout the speech into enthusiastic ovations and crescendoed with Obama's tribute to Jewish Americans who died alongside blacks fighting for civil rights in America.
"I would not be standing here today if it weren't for the commitment that was made, not only in the African American community, but also in the Jewish American community," he said.
Citing the Jewish religious concept of "tikkun olam - the obligation to repair this world," Obama said: "Together, we can rededicate ourselves to end prejudice and combat hatred in all its forms."
It was hallmark Obama. The audience roared.