JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama began a visit to Jerusalem on Wednesday pledging staunch support for Israel and saying that if elected, he would work to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process.
As part of an overseas tour aimed at bolstering his foreign policy credentials, Obama met Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Later in the day, he will see President Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who could be forced out of office by a corruption probe.
"I will share some of my ideas. The most important idea for me to reaffirm is the historic and special relationship between the United States and Israel -- one that cannot be broken," Obama said after landing at Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday night.
Obama, who faces Republican John McCain in the November election, is struggling to overcome wariness among some Israelis and some Jewish voters in the United States about the strength of his commitment to Israel.
But he also 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.
The itinerary of the Democratic candidate, an Illinois senator, also includes a visit to the occupied West Bank to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
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.
At the airport, Obama said the bulldozer attack was "just one reminder of why we have to work diligently, urgently and in a unified way to defeat terrorism."
Obama also expressed his wish to reinforce the "historic special relationship between the United States and Israel."
Prior to his trip to Israel, Obama visited Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a fact-finding tour and underscored his goal of bringing U.S. troops home within 16 months and stepping up a focus on Afghanistan.
Obama plans to visit Berlin, Paris and London after Israel.
Just after visiting Iraq, Obama told reporters in Amman he would work vigorously for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians but said it would not be easy.
"My goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I'm sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs," Obama said, adding that it was unrealistic to expect a U.S. president to "suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace."
Obama will stop on Wednesday in the Israeli town of Sderot, which sits near the border with the Gaza Strip and has been hit by cross-border rocket attacks.
The rocket attacks, and Israeli military operations in the territory, have largely subsided since an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire took hold last month.
Doubts among Israelis about Obama have been fuelled in part by his pledge to increase engagement with Israel's arch-foe Iran, though he has emphasized any discussions would carry a tough message that Tehran must halt sensitive nuclear work.
"He started out with one big strike against him -- which is that he was seen as the polar opposite of (President George W.) Bush, who is perceived here as a very supportive president," said Mark Heller of the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel.
"Some of the concerns have been allayed but you'll probably still find more support for McCain here than in any other country outside the United States," Heller said.
(Additional reporting by Adam Entous, Editing by Dominic Evans)
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In: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, News
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