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Obama vows unshakeable bond with Israel

JERUSALEM, July 24 – Barack Obama headed for Europe Thursday after vowing to forge an "unshakeable" bond with Israel if elected the next US president and stressing the need to head off the "grave threat" of a nuclear Iran.

The Democratic White House hopeful paid a brief visit to the Wailing Wall before leaving Ben Gurion airport for Germany on the European leg of his international tour.

In an interview with the daily Haaretz Thursday, he called on Israelis and Palestinians to act quickly for a settlement.

"I have had in-depth discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and encouraged all of them to make as much progress as they can in their negotiations this year," he said.

"The next US administration should help the parties build on the progress that has been made thus far, and continue to work toward the goal of the two states living side by side in peace and security."

Obama, who had already visited Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq and Jordan, heads on to a three-stop tour of Europe, beginning in Berlin on Thursday.

Obama hailed Israel as a "miracle" as he courted Jewish voters at home, taking pains to stress he understood the security fears of the Jewish state and would not push it into a peace deal.

"I bring here an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security," Obama said Wednesday, after a day meeting top Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, opposition Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu, and President Shimon Peres.

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Olmert, hosting Obama for dinner, replied that the presidential hopeful was following a tradition of the "great friends of Israel."

"I know how friendly you are, and I know how much you care for us," Olmert said.

The Illinois senator also tried to convince the Palestinians, during a short trip to see the conflict from the other side, on the occupied West Bank, that he would sponsor a vigorous peace effort if elected.

Obama picked his way through the tricky currents of Middle Eastern politics on the latest leg of a high-profile international tour meant to assuage fears among some US voters that he lacks experience on the global stage.

The senator reiterated his vow to stop Iran developing a nuclear weapon, but defended his offer of talks with leaders from the Islamic Republic, promising to use "big carrots and big sticks."

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