In the clearest indication yet of how he intends to confront Senator Barack Obama on foreign policy issues in the general election, Senator John McCain on Friday again portrayed the Democratic contender as being the favorite of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, and implied that he would also be friendly with Iran, a Hamas ally.
Speaking at a news conference in New Jersey, Mr. McCain said he believed that comments made by a Hamas leader approving Mr. Obama’s candidacy were “a legitimate point of discussion,” and he went on to accuse Mr. Obama of agreeing to negotiate with the president of Iran, who on Wednesday referred to Israel as “a stinking corpse facing annihilation.” He described that as “a distinct difference between myself and Senator Obama.”
Mr. Obama has not let attacks go unanswered. On Thursday, he replied by saying that Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, was “losing his bearings” and engaging in “smear” tactics. “My policy toward Hamas has been no different than his,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on CNN.
Mr. McCain’s attacks are part of a broader effort by his campaign to depict Mr. Obama, the leader in the delegate count in the Democratic race for president, as inexperienced and naïve on foreign policy in general and soft on terrorism and its sponsors specifically. Throughout the campaign, Mr. Obama has also had to fight a related perception, one encouraged by his Democratic rivals, that his support for Israel is also weak.
But important nuances appear to have been lost in the partisan salvos, particularly on Mr. McCain’s side. An examination of Mr. Obama’s numerous public statements on the subjects indicates that he has consistently condemned Hamas as a “terrorist organization,” has not sought the group’s support and does not advocate immediate, direct or unconditional negotiations with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president.
The McCain-Obama dispute about Hamas began last month, after Ahmed Yousef, a political adviser to the group’s leadership in Gaza, made complimentary remarks about Mr. Obama in an interview with WABC radio in New York. After initially complaining that “everybody tries to sound like he is a friend of Israel” when out on the campaign trail, including Mr. Obama, Mr. Yousef shifted tone.
“We like Mr. Obama,” Mr. Yousef said, “and we hope that he will win the election.”
“I do believe that Mr. Obama is like John Kennedy, a great man with great principles,” he continued. “He has a vision to change America, to make it in a position to lead the world community, but not with domination and arrogance.”
Though Hamas describes itself as both a political party and a movement with an armed wing, the State Department, as well as Israel and several other countries, classifies it as a terrorist organization. The group has sponsored suicide bombings against Israeli military and civilian targets, and its charter calls for the elimination of Israel and its replacement by an Islamic Palestinian state.
The United States has pursued a policy of isolating Hamas while trying to strengthen moderate Palestinian leaders.
For his part, Mr. McCain has taken pride in the enmity with which he regards Hamas. “I think that the people should understand that I will be Hamas’s worst nightmare,” he said late last month in a conference call with conservative bloggers.
Conversely, he has tried to portray Mr. Obama as sympathetic to Hamas.
“I think it is very clear who Hamas wants to be the next president of the United States,” Mr. McCain said to the bloggers. “If Senator Obama is favored by Hamas, I think people can make judgments accordingly.”
And in a fund-raising letter sent out in April, a spokesman for Mr. McCain wrote: “We need change in America, but not the kind of change that wins kind words from Hamas, surrenders in Iraq and will hold unconditional talks with Iranian President Ahmadinejad.”
In particular, the McCain campaign has explicitly linked Mr. Yousef’s statements to Mr. Obama’s repeatedly stated willingness to talk to so-called “rogue states” like Iran, North Korea and Cuba.
“Well, Iran is obviously an important supporter of Hamas,” Mr. McCain said Friday.
“Senator Obama wants to sit down and have negotiations and discussions with the person who just yesterday called Israel a quote ‘stinking corpse,’ ” he said, referring to Mr. Ahmadinejad, and “who continues to advocate quote ‘wiping Israel off the map.’ ”
Susan E. Rice, a former State Department and National Security Council official who is a foreign policy adviser to the Democratic candidate, said that “for political purposes, Senator Obama’s opponents on the right have distorted and reframed” his views. Mr. McCain and his surrogates have repeatedly stated that Mr. Obama would be willing to meet “unconditionally” with Mr. Ahmadinejad. But Dr. Rice said that this was not the case for Iran or any other so-called “rogue” state. Mr. Obama believes “that engagement at the presidential level, at the appropriate time and with the appropriate preparation, can be used to leverage the change we need,” Dr. Rice said. “But nobody said he would initiate contacts at the presidential level; that requires due preparation and advance work.”
Mr. Obama has been clear in making a distinction between his willingness to talk “not just to countries we like, but those we don’t,” as he puts it, and Hamas and other political movements similar to it. “Hamas is not a state,” Mr. Obama told a Jewish group last month. “Hamas is a terrorist organization.”
Responding to Mr. McCain’s accusations in an interview with CNN on Thursday, Mr. Obama elaborated on that position. He again called Hamas a terrorist group and said that “we should not talk to them unless they recognize Israel, renounce violence and are willing to abide by previous accords” that Israel has negotiated with its neighbors and with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
That is not a new position for Mr. Obama. In 2006, he, like Mr. McCain, was a co-sponsor of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which called on “members of the international community to avoid contact with and refrain from financially supporting the terrorist organization Hamas” until it met all of the same requirements that Mr. Obama enumerated again on Thursday.
Michael Cooper contributed reporting.
This article, On McCain, Obama and a Hamas link, originally appeared in The New York Times.