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Holocaust a lesson against bigotry, Obama says in Jerusalem

By McClatchy Newspapers

JERUSALEM -- President Obama paid tribute to the victims of the Holocaust in a solemn visit Friday to the national Yad Vashem memorial, drawing lessons for today from that dark period in history.

Standing beside a memorial to the children who perished, Obama said the lives memorialized at Yad Vashem should inspire people to resist racism, bigotry and hatred wherever they encounter it.

"Here we learn that we are never powerless," Obama told a small gathering on a mount overlooking Jerusalem. "In our lives we have choices, to succumb to our worst instincts or to summon the better angels of our nature.  . . . We have a choice to acquiesce to evil or make real our solemn vow -- never again."

After he spoke, a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp offered a comparison between the Nazi genocide of the Jews and the looming Iranian nuclear threat, suggesting that Obama must help protect the Jewish people.

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, told Obama and his entourage about a Buchenwald liberator who sought him out 68 years after the war and asked his forgiveness "for being late."

"Don't be too late," Lau then said to Obama, clearly alluding to discussions between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about how close Iran is to developing a nuclear weapon and when diplomacy should give way to military action.

As Lau spoke, Obama smiled and nodded.

With his first presidential visit to Israel, Obama tried to quell concerns about his commitment to the Jewish state and its historic ties to the land of Israel.

After spending two days spelling it out in public remarks and in symbolic acts, Obama on Friday laid a stone at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, fulfilling a top request of his Israeli hosts.

The stop at Herzl's grave, together with Thursday's visit to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient Hebrew texts, were symbolic stops for Obama that acknowledged a rationale for Israel's existence that rests with its historical ties to the region and with a vision that predated the Holocaust.

Obama has been criticized in Israel for a 2009 speech in Cairo in which he gave only the example of the Holocaust as a reason for justifying Israel's existence.

"Here on your ancient land, let it be said for all the world to hear," Obama said. "The state of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but with the survival of a strong Jewish state of Israel, such a holocaust will never happen again."

After visiting Yad Vashem (literally, "a memorial and a name"), Obama had a working lunch with Netanyahu.

Afterward, he toured the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, then departed for Jordan.

After arriving in Amman, Obama, anxious to keep neighboring Syria's civil war from spiraling into even worse problems, Obama said he worries about that country becoming a haven for extremists when -- not if -- President Bashar Assad is ousted from power.

The president, standing side by side with Jordan's King Abdullah II, said the international community must work together to ensure there is a credible opposition ready to step into the breach.

"Something has been broken in Syria, and it's not going to be put back together perfectly immediately -- even after Assad leaves," Obama said, "but we can begin the process of moving it in a better direction, and having a cohesive opposition is critical to that."

He said Assad is sure to go but that there is great uncertainty about what will happen after that.

"I am very concerned about Syria becoming an enclave for extremism," Obama said, adding that extremism thrives in chaos and failed states. He said the rest of the world has a huge stake in ensuring that a functioning Syria emerges.

"The outcome in Syria is not going to be ideal," he acknowledged, adding that strengthening a credible opposition is crucial to minimizing the difficulties.

Eager to resolve another source of tension in the region, the president earlier Friday helped broker a phone call between the Israeli and Turkish prime ministers that led to the restoration of normal diplomatic relations between the two countries.

While Obama was in Israel, Netanyahu placed a call to Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan to apologize for the deaths of nine Turkish activists in a 2010 Israeli naval raid on a Gaza-bound international flotilla.

"The timing was good for that conversation to take place," Obama said.

Obama, at a joint news conference with Abdullah, said his administration is working with Congress to provide Jordan with an additional $200 million in aid this year to cope with the massive influx of refugees streaming across the border from Syria.

Abdullah said the refugee population in his country has topped 460,000 and is likely to double by the end of the year -- the equivalent of 30 million refugees in the United States, he said.

Obama also said he would "keep on plugging away" in hopes of getting the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a peace agreement.

"The window of opportunity still exists, but it's getting more and more difficult," the president said. "The mistrust is building instead of ebbing."

On Iran, Obama reiterated that the United States is open to "every option that's available" to keep the country from developing a nuclear weapon.

He said it would be "extraordinarily dangerous" for the world if Iran does become nuclear capable, and he expressed his desire for using diplomatic means to halt Iran's nuclear aspirations.

Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

"My hope and expectation is that, among a menu of options, the option that involves negotiations, discussions, compromise and resolution of the problem is the one that's exercised," Obama said, "but as president of the United States I would never take any option off the table."

Obama arrived in Jordan Friday evening, the final stop on a four-day visit to the Middle East that included his first stop in Israel as president.

He began his visit to Amman with an apology.

"I apologize for the delay," Obama told Abdullah after arriving about an hour behind schedule. "We ended up having a dust storm."

The two leaders headed to dinner after their news conference. On Saturday, Obama plans several hours of sightseeing, including a tour of the fabled ancient city of Petra, before the return trip to Washington.


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