In Clinton, Obama Debate, Israel Plays Role

In their last scheduled debate, Sens. Clinton and Obama talked of their support for Israel and argued over whether to renounce or reject Louis Farrakhan. It's not an issue that has come up much in the Senate since Obama's arrival three years ago, but it's getting attention now on the campaign trail.

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For years, Democratic Senator Barack Obama has identified himself as a strong supporter of Israel. Lately, he's been facing questions about his connections to people who are not, most recently in last night's debate with Hillary Clinton in Cleveland.

As NPR's David Welna reports, there are questions about whether the Clinton campaign might be stoking doubts about where Obama really stands on Israel.

DAVID WELNA: Many voters have never seen the messages being circulated that suggest, among other things, that Senator Obama is actually a Muslim rather than the Christian he says he's always been, but such rumors and innuendo are all too familiar to one segment of the electorate.

Mr. NATHAN DIAMENT (Public Policy Director, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations): We've seen a consistent flow of e-mails and questions and discussion in the community.

WELNA: As public policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, Nathan Diament says he is constantly fielding questions from members of the Jewish community who've seen the e-mails or blogs that question Obama's support for Israel. Diament says a pattern has emerged in the targeting of these messages.

Mr. DIAMENT: It's hard to see evidence of orchestration, although we have seen that they seem to move around to communities as the primary calendar progresses. In other words, there were a lot of e-mails going around communities in Super Tuesday states before Super Tuesday. You know, now, they're in Ohio, and so, they seem to follow the campaign calendar.

WELNA: But does that mean they're coming from a rival campaign? Brian Williams of NBC News asked Hillary Clinton in last night's MSNBC debate about a photograph of Barack Obama in a Somali costume that appeared Monday in "The Drudge Report."

(Soundbite of MSNBC debate)

Mr. BRIAN WILLIAMS (Anchor and Managing Editor, "NBC Nightly News"): And Matt Drudge on his website said it came from a source inside the Clinton campaign. Can you say unequivocally here tonight, it did not?

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): Well, so far as I know, it did not, and I certainly know nothing about it, and have made clear that that's not the kind of behavior that I condone or expect from the people working in my campaign, but we have no evidence where it came from.

WELNA: Still, shortly after last night's debate ended, a Clinton spokesman did e-mail reporters to remind them Obama did not mention Israel when asked during the first campaign debate last April to name America's three most important allies.

The questioning of Obama on Israel comes from other quarters as well. Ed Lasky has written a series of stories questioning the sincerity of Obama's stance on Israel for the online webzine, The American Thinker.

Mr. ED LASKY (News Editor, The American Thinker): When you tend to evaluate somebody, the issues that concern, sometimes especially when there is such a short record, a pro-Israel record that's almost identical to probably 97 to 99 senators in the Senate, by the way, you tend to look at other factors beyond just the voting records.

WELNA: Such as the backing Obama received Sunday from Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan, who's called Judaism a gutter religion. As to last night's debate about Farrakhan's support, Obama rejected it.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): I think I'm very familiar with his record as the - or the American people, that's why I have consistently denounced that this is not something new, this is something that I went in Chicago, or he lives in Chicago, I've been very clear in terms of me believing that what he has said is reprehensible and inappropriate and I have consistently distanced myself from him.

WELNA: And still doubts still linger about his support for Israel, Obama then went on to call Israel's security sacrosanct and added that the U.S. should have a special relationship with Israel just as he said he does with the Jewish community.

But he has also made an effort to set the record straight with members of that community. On Sunday, Obama met privately with about a hundred Jewish leaders in Cleveland to reassure them he is, indeed, on their side.

David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

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