Image: Sen. Barack Obama
Sebastian Scheiner  /  AP
White House hopeful Barack Obama places a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 7/23/2008 8:44:41 PM ET 2008-07-24T00:44:41

U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama said on Wednesday a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a "grave threat" to the world.

Obama told reporters during a visit to Israel that if elected, he would take "no options off the table" in dealing with the Iran issue and said tougher sanctions could be imposed.

"A nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," Obama told reporters after visiting the Israeli town of Sderot, which lies close to the border with the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

He said the international community should immediately offer "big sticks and big carrots" to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear program. The West suspects Iran wants to build atomic bombs but the Islamic Republic says its aims are peaceful.

From the solemnity of a Holocaust museum to a dusty village battered by Hamas rockets, Obama on Wednesday professed "an unshakable commitment to the security" of Israel, whether the threat comes from terrorists, Iran or elsewhere.

Obama packed more than a half-dozen meetings, a stop at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, a helicopter tour of the country and a visit to a house hit by Hamas rockets into his only full day in Israel during his trip to the Middle East and Europe.

He also rode past an Israeli checkpoint into Ramallah on the West Bank, where he assured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of his support for a two-state resolution of the region's long animosities. Later, entering a session with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Obama said his talks with Abbas indicated "there's a strong sense of progress being made" toward peace. Olmert nodded and said, "Indeed."

Later, Obama paid a predawn visit to the holiest place in Judaism on Thursday, bowing his head in prayer at the Western Wall.

Obama placed a small note inside a crevice in the ancient wall, a custom observed by many. He made his brief stop as he completed a trip to the Middle East in which he met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders as well as Jordan's King Abdullah.

Obama's major focus was clearly reassuring Israelis — and by extension millions of Jewish voters in the United States — of his commitment to the survival of the Jewish state. He leads his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, among Jewish voters, but his support falls short of what Democrat John Kerry drew four years ago.

Many Israelis are concerned that Obama — a first-term U.S. senator with little foreign policy experience — would push Israel too hard in negotiations with the Palestinians. His family's Muslim roots have added to the unease, even though Obama was raised as a Christian and remains a practicing Christian.

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Palestinians doubt Obama or any other U.S. leader would reverse what they see as Washington's bias toward Israel.

"I'm 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," Obama during a visit to the official residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres.

A 30-minute drive away, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Obama assured Palestinian leaders he'd get involved in the Mideast conflict quickly, a top Palestinian official said.

'A constructive partner'
In his meeting with Abbas, Obama confirmed "that he will be a constructive partner in the peace process" and would not "waste a minute" if elected, Abbas' aide Saeb Erekat said.

Obama is visiting at a time of great political turmoil in the region that has jeopardized prospects for Mideast peace. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under investigation in a corruption probe that threatens to topple him. And the Palestinians are deeply divided, with Abbas' forces in charge of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip ruled by Islamic Hamas militants.

Obama plunged into the intricacies of the region's longest-running conflict with a packed schedule of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

At Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, he wore a white skullcap, laid a wreath of white chrysanthemums and lisianthus and lit a memorial flame. "Despite this record of monumental tragedy, this ultimately is a place of hope," he said.

"At a time of great peril and torment, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man's potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world," he wrote in the visitors' book.

American tourists who passed him by at the memorial told him, "Remember what you see here," and he replied, "Yes, I understand, I understand," said Yad Vashem's director, Avner Shalev.

Security guards at the memorial kept back the few American and European visitors who had hoped to get a closer glimpse of the presidential contender.

But the somberness of the occasion at Yad Vashem also gave way to moments of warmth and lightheartedness.

Effusive welcome from Peres
Peres gave him an effusive welcome, saying he had read Obama's two books and was "moved" by them. The Israeli president handed Obama an English translation of a book he wrote, "The Imaginary Voyage: With Theodor Herzl in Israel." Obama asked him to sign and dedicate the book, Peres' office said in a statement.

Obama praised Israel's accomplishments 60 years after its creation, and complimented the 84-year-old Israeli president on his youthful appearance.

"I also want to get his recipe for looking as good he does," Obama quipped.

After Obama huddled with Peres, a female aide to the president emerged from the room and was overheard gasping, "Eizeh Khatikh" — "What a hunk!"

An aide to the president said Obama showed a "strong grasp" of regional affairs and that "he said he came to listen and learn."

The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was not open to the public.

Trip to southern Israel
Earlier in the day, Obama met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and parliamentary opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud Party takes a hard line against the Palestinians. He was to meet with Olmert in the evening, after visiting a southern Israeli town that's been bombarded by Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

A late-night tour of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, is to cap the visit.

Israeli officials said their talks with Obama included discussions about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Many Israelis are worried by Obama's willingness to talk to Tehran, the Jewish state's bitterest enemy.

Obama met with Barak and Netanyahu at Jerusalem's posh King David Hotel, where an "Israel for Obama" campaign poster was draped over an armchair in the lobby. The poster included Obama's campaign slogan — "Change you can believe in" — in Hebrew.

Some Israelis who support Obama hope he will take a stronger hand with Israel when it ignores its commitments to the U.S. to halt settlement building and dismantle settlement satellites known as outposts.

"In general, I think tough love is better than a free hand," said the head of the "Israel for Obama" campaign, Samson Altman-Schevitz. He moved to Israel two years ago from Chicago, where Obama's wife, Michelle, was his adviser at the University of Chicago.

Obama left Abbas' headquarters without speaking to reporters. But on Tuesday, he cautioned it is "unrealistic to expect that a U.S. president alone can suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace in this region."

His meeting with the Palestinians stands in contrast to the decision by Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain to visit only Israel in March, without stopping in the West Bank.

Police out in force
On the road leading to Abbas' headquarters on Wednesday, police were out in full force, standing 10 yards apart and outfitted in full battle regalia, with camouflage uniforms, helmets, bulletproof vests, and carrying truncheons and assault rifles.

The Illinois Democrat is working to shore up support among U.S. Jewish voters. Many supported Hillary Rodham Clinton in the battle for the party's presidential nomination, and some have questioned his commitment to Israel.

Obama arrived in Israel Tuesday night from neighboring Jordan and is due to leave for Germany early on Thursday.

Hours before his arrival, a Palestinian man wreaked havoc in downtown Jerusalem — several hundred yards from Obama's hotel — by plowing a front-end loader into cars and a bus. Five people were wounded before a bystander and a policeman shot him dead in the second such incident in the city in less than a month.

A spokeswoman for Yad Vashem, Estee Yaari, said at the end of his visit there, Obama met with the policeman and told him, "Oh, I thought they would have given you the day off."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: In Mideast, Obama straddles center

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