Obama calls Israel a "miracle", vows staunch support


By Caren Bohan and Adam Entous

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama pledged staunch support for Israel on Wednesday in Jerusalem, describing the Jewish state as a miracle and holding only a low-profile meeting with Palestinian leaders.

Obama, who is seeking to allay wariness among some U.S. Jewish voters about his policy towards Israel, said in comments to reporters he hoped to help bring peace in the Middle East.

"I'm here on this trip to reaffirm the special relationship between Israel and the United States, my abiding commitment to its security, and my hope that I can serve as an effective partner, whether as a ... senator or as a president, in bringing about a more lasting peace in the region," he said.

The Illinois senator, meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres, described Israel as a "miracle that has blossomed" since its founding 60 years ago. Wearing a Jewish skullcap, he later laid a white wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum.

"Let our children come here and know this history so that they can add their voices to proclaim 'never again'," Obama wrote in the museum's visitors' book.

The Democratic candidate met Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and will later hold talks with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who could be forced out of office by a corruption probe.

Avoiding a high-profile trip to the occupied West Bank that could alienate the Jewish voters he needs to court, Obama did not make a statement after an hour-long meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah.

Aides said he would release a written statement later.

Hundreds of helmeted Palestinian security officers with automatic rifles lined the streets as Obama drove into the city from Jerusalem. His black motorcade passed Israel's towering West Bank barrier and hilltop Jewish settlements en route, testament to the thorny issues that have confounded generations of would-be peacemakers.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat earlier said he hoped Israel and the Palestinians would forge a statehood agreement by the time U.S. President George W. Bush steps down in January.

If not, Erekat said, Palestinians hoped Bush's successor would "stay the course" to pursue peace in a "serious, expeditious" manner.

Obama, who faces Republican John McCain in the November election, dismayed Palestinian leaders when he said last month that Jerusalem should be Israel's "undivided" capital.

Palestinians want Arab East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, as the capital of a future state. Obama later said he used "poor phrasing" when he made the remarks.

Obama will stop on Wednesday in the Israeli town of Sderot, which sits near the border with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and has been hit by rockets fired by Palestinian militants. McCain visited Sderot in March and did not go to the West Bank.

The cross-border rocket attacks, and Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip, have largely subsided since an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire took hold last month.

Obama arrived in Israel just hours after a Palestinian rammed a bulldozer into vehicles on a busy Jerusalem street near the hotel booked for his stay. The attacker wounded at least 16 people, one seriously, before being shot dead.

Aides said that at Yad Vashem, Obama met an Israeli police officer who along with others shot the driver. It was unclear how the meeting was arranged.