Sen. Barack Obama (

Sen. Barack Obama has harshly criticized Sen. John McCain for making an issue of an endorsement by Hamas, but the Democratic candidate said in a new interview he understands why the terrorist group supports his presidential bid.

“It’s conceivable that there are those in the Arab world who say to themselves, ‘This is a guy who spent some time in the Muslim world, has a middle name of Hussein and appears more worldly and has called for talks with people, and so he’s not going to be engaging in the same sort of cowboy diplomacy as George Bush,'” Obama told the Atlantic magazine.

“That’s a perfectly legitimate perception as long as they’re not confused about my unyielding support for Israel’s security,” the Illinois senator said.

The controversy unfolded last month when Hamas political adviser Ahmed Yousef told WND’s Aaron Klein, author of “Schmoozing with Terrorists,” and WABC radio his group hopes Obama will win the presidential election and change America’s foreign policy.

McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, responded, prompting sharp exchanges between the two candidates and their campaigns.

“If Sen. Obama is favored by Hamas, I think people can make judgments accordingly,” McCain said.

The U.S. State Department regards Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Last week, Obama severed ties with a Middle East policy adviser who acknowledged holding private meetings with Hamas. Robert Malley, who had advocated negotiations with Hamas, was sacked after disclosing to the Times of London he had been in regular contact with the group in conjunction with his work for a conflict resolution think tank.

In the Atlantic interview, Obama was asked what he thought of the Hamas leader’s praise.

“My position on Hamas is indistinguishable from the position of Hillary Clinton or John McCain,” he responded. “I said they are a terrorist organization, and I’ve repeatedly condemned them. I’ve repeatedly said, and I mean what I say: Since they are a terrorist organization, we should not be dealing with them until they recognize Israel, renounce terrorism, and abide by previous agreements.”

Obama insisted he has been “very adamant about Israel’s right to defend itself” and vowed to maintain America’s strong ties to the Jewish state, if elected.

The senator said he welcomed “the Muslim world’s accurate perception that I am interested in opening up dialogue and interested in moving away from the unilateral policies of George Bush, but nobody should mistake that for a softer stance when it comes to terrorism or when it comes to protecting Israel’s security or making sure that the alliance is strong and firm. You will not see, under my presidency, any slackening in commitment to Israel’s security.”

The Atlantic asked Obama to respond to former President Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that Israel resembles an apartheid state.

“I strongly reject the characterization,” the Illinois Democrat said. “Israel is a vibrant democracy, the only one in the Middle East, and there’s no doubt that Israel and the Palestinians have tough issues to work out to get to the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security, but injecting a term like apartheid into the discussion doesn’t advance that goal. It’s emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and it’s not what I believe.”

Last week, in an interview with CNN, Obama reacted to McCain’s focus on the Hamas endorsement.

“This is offensive and I think it’s disappointing, because John McCain always says, well, I’m not going to run that kind of politics and that engages in that kind of smear I think is unfortunate, particularly since my policy toward Hamas has been no different than his,” Obama said.

“For him to toss out comments like that I think is an example of him losing his bearings as he pursues this nomination,” he added. “We don’t need name-calling in this debate.”

The “losing his bearings” comment stirred its own controversy as some critics perceived it as a dig at McCain’s age. The Arizona senator, if elected, would be the oldest first-term president, taking the oath at age 72.



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