U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama carried out a whirlwind tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and visiting a rocket-battered town in southern Israel. VOA's Jim Teeple has the details from our Jerusalem bureau.
Barack Obama's visit attracted intense scrutiny and interest from both Israelis and Palestinians. The Illinois senator began his day meeting with senior Israeli cabinet members, and then met with Israel's ceremonial head of state President Shimon Peres.
The two men spoke to reporters and Obama, the presumptive nominee of the U.S. Democratic Party, pledged strong support for Israel.
"I am here on this trip to reaffirm the special relationship between Israel and the United States and my abiding commitment to Israel's security and my hope that I can serve as an effective partner, whether as a U.S. senator or as president in bringing about a more lasting peace in the region," Obama said.
Obama took that message of commitment to the Middle East peace process to the West Bank city of Ramallah where he met with moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Neither man commented publicly about their meeting, but senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says Palestinians are paying close attention to both Senator Obama and his opponent John McCain.
"Whoever wins the election in the United States we hope they will stay the course - the course of the two-state solution - the course of ending the Israeli occupation - the course of standing shoulder to shoulder with Palestinians and Israelis in order to reach the objective specified in the 'road map' peace plan to create a two-state solution of Palestine and Israel living side-by-side in peace and security," he said.
Arizona Senator John McCain, the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, did not meet with Palestinian leaders or travel to the West Bank during his visit to Israel in March.
Obama also visited the southern Israeli city of Sderot, battered by Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Later he met with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Obama's discussions with Israeli leaders focused on Iran's nuclear program and the Mideast Peace process.
Israelis have voiced strong opposition to statements by the Illinois senator that he is willing to talk to Iran - regarded by many Israelis as their country's biggest security threat. Obama said the world must stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, saying a nuclear Iran would be a grave threat, and that if elected, he would take no options off the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Obama's visit to Israel is being seen by many analysts as an attempt to shore up his support with U.S. Jewish voters.
Polls indicate many are skeptical of his support for Israel, and many who vote Democratic supported his opponent in the Democratic Party primaries, Hillary Clinton.
Some Israelis like Natan Fogatt say they still do not trust the Illinois senator.
"He has been flip-flopping on major issues throughout the entire campaign," said Fogatt. "So you would expect that when he is appearing before a Jewish group he is going to say something which they want to hear - but sure enough a day or two later when he is speaking to a different group he is going to say something different."
But other Israelis say they support Senator Obama's pledge to immediately engage in Mideast diplomacy if he is elected president in November. Many Israelis are paying close attention to Obama, with virtually all media outlets in the country providing non-stop coverage of his visit to Israel.