We’ve received a rough transcript that came from the Obama campaign of a closed meeting that the candidate held Sunday in Cleveland with about 100 Jewish communal leaders. Whoever recorded the remarks was only able to get Obama’s answers, not the actual questions from the audience.
For the most part, Obama sought to reassure the audience – on Israel, Iran, his church, his pastor, his foreign policy advisers, his religion. At the same time, he picked a few spots to push back against some of his critics in the Jewish community (see the stuff about the folly of equating pro-Likud with pro-Israel and the ability of Israelis to conducts a robust debate over security/diplomatic strategy).
Here are the key quotes (the summaries in all caps are mine, but not the typos):
WE NEED ‘TIKKUN OLAM’ IN WASHINGTON: “We need to change how Washington works because politics shouldn’t just be about scoring political points, it should also be about solving problems. We need to change our priorities to make healthcare more affordable. To have an energy policy that not only creates jobs and secures our planet but also stops sending billions of dollars to dictators and effectively leads us to fund both sides of the war on terrorism. We need a change in our foreign policy to allows to end the war in Iraq responsibly and lead the world against the common threats of the 21st century, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, genocide, poverty and hopelessness in the world. These changes are founded in a view of the world that I believe is deeply imbedded in the Jewish tradition. That all of us have a responsibility to do our part to repair the world. That we can take care of one another and build strong communities grounded in faith and family. That repairing the world is a task that each of us is called upon to take up every single day. That is the spirit that I expect to take with me to the White House.”
STAND BY YOUR ISRAEL: “I will also carry with me an unshakable commitment to the security of Israel and the friendship between the United States and Israel. The US Israel relationship is rooted in shared interests, shared values, shared history and in deep friendship among our people. It is supported by a strong bipartisan consensus that I am proud to be a part of and I will work tirelessly as president to uphold and enhance the friendship between the two countries. Two years ago I had a chance to travel to Israel and it left a lasting impression on me. I have long understood Israel’s great dilemma, it’s need for security in a difficult neighborhood and it’s quest for peace with its neighbors, but there is no substitute for meeting the people of Israel. Seeing the terrain, experiencing the powerful contrast between the beautiful holy land that faces the constant threat of deadly violence. The people of Israel showed their courage and commitment to democracy everyday that they board a bus or kiss their children goodbye or argue about politics in a local café. And I know how much Israelis crave peace. I know that Prime Minister Olmert was elected with a mandate to pursue it. I pledge to make every effort to help Israel achieve that peace. I will strengthen Israel’s security and strengthen Palestinian partners who support that vision and personally work for two states that can live side by side in peace and security with Israel’s status as a Jewish state ensured so that Israelis and Palestinians can pursue their dreams. I also expect to work on behalf of peace with the full knowledge that Israel still has bitter enemies who are intent on its destruction. We see their intentions every time a suicide bomber strikes, we saw their intentions with the katusha rockets that Hezbollah rained down on Israel from Lebanon in 2006 and we see it today in the Kasams that Hamas fires into Israel every single day from as close as Gaza or as far as Tehran. The Defense cooperation between the United States to Israel has been a model of success and I believe it can be deepened and strengthened.”
IRAN – ALL MILITARY OPTIONS ON THE TABLE, BUT LET’S TRY SOME AGGRESSIVE DIPLOMACY FIRST: “Now the gravest threat as [U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.)] mentioned to Israel today I believe is from Iran. There a radical regime continues to pursue its capacity to build a nuclear weapon and continues to support terrorism across the region. President Ahmadinejad continues his offensive denials of the Holocaust and disturbing denunciations of Israel. recently referred to Israel as a deadly microbe and a savage animal. Threats of Israel’s destruction can not be dismissed as rhetoric. The threat from Iran is real and my goal as president would be to eliminate that threat. Ending the war in Iraq I believe will be an important first step in achieving that goal because it will increase our flexibility and credibility when we deal with Iran. Make no mistake I believe that Iran has been the biggest strategic beneficiary of this war and I intend to change that. My approach to Iran will be aggressive diplomacy. I will not take any military options off the table. But I also believe that under this administration we have seen the threat grow worse and I intend to change that course. The time I believe has come to talk to directly to the Iranians and to lay out our clear terms. Their end of pursuit of nuclear weapons, an end of their support of terrorism and an end of their threat to Israel and other countries in the reason. To prepare this goal I believe that we need to present incentives, carrots, like the prospect of better relations and integration into the national community, as well as disincentives like the prospect of increased sanctions. I would seek these sanctions through the United Nations and encourage our friends in Europe and the Gulf to use their economic leverage against Iran outside of the UN and I believe we will be in a stronger position to achieve these tough international sanctions if the United States has shown itself to be willing to come to the table. I will also continue the work I started in the United States Senate by enacting my legislation to make it easier for states to divest their pension funds from Iran. As president I will leave all options on the table for dealing with a threat from Iran including the military options. But I believe that we have not pursued the kind of aggressive and direct diplomacy that could yield results to both Israel and the United States. The current policy of not talking is not working. It is time to change that. I am running for president because I believe that America can do better both at home and abroad. I believe that we can do better in our relationship with Israel through a more effective foreign policy that reduces the threat of terrorism and increase the possibility for peace.”
I DON’T AGREE WITH EVERYTHING MY PASTOR SAYS – BESIDES, HE’S RETIRING (HEY, DON’T ANY OF YOU HAVE AN UNCLE WHO SAYS SHVARTZA?): “I am member of the Unity Church of Christ, Trinity United Church of Christ been there for 20 years. And although this is an improvement because you don’t think I am Muslim, which is the other… [laughter] You know so, slowly we are progressing here. It is a very conventional African American Church. If you go to, if you were there at the church you would be hearing gospel music and people preaching about Jesus. It is a very conventional in that sense. It is true that my Pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who will be retiring this month, is somebody who on occasion can say controversial things. Most of them by the way are controversial directed at the African American Community and calling on them start reading books and turn off the tv set and engage in self help. And he is very active in prison ministries and so forth. Its is also true that he comes out of the 60s he is an older man. That is where he cut his teeth. That he has historically been interested in the African roots of the African American experience. He was very active in the South Africa divestment movement and you will recall that there was a tension that arose between the African American and the Jewish communities During that period when we were dealing with apartheid in South Africa, because Israel and South Africa had a relationship at that time. And that cause – that was a source of tension. So there have been a couple of occasions where he made comments with relation, rooted in that. Not necessariary ones that I share. But that is the context within which he has made those comments. He does not have a close relationship with Louis Farrakhan. Louis Farrakhan is a resident of Chicago and as a consequence he has been active in a range of community activities, particularly around ex-offenders and dealing with them. I have been a consistent, before I go any further, a consistent denunciator of Louis Farrakhan, nobody challenges that. And what is true is that, recently this is probably, I guess last year. An award was given to Farrakhan for his work on behave of ex-offenders completely unrelated to his controversial statements. And I believe that was a mistake and showed a lack of sensitivity to Jewish community and I said so. But I have never heard an anti-Semitic made inside of our church. I have never heard anything that would suggest anti-Semitism on part of the Pastor. He is like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don’t agree with. And I suspect there are some of the people in this room who have heard relatives say some things that they don’t agree with. Including, on occasion directed at African Americans that maybe a possibility that’s just – I am not suggesting that’s definitive. So the point I make is this that I understand the concerns and the sensitivities and one of my goals constantly in my public career has been to try to bridge what was a historically powerful bond between the African American and Jewish communities that has been frayed in recent years. For a whole variety of reasons. I think that I have served as an effective bridge and that’s the reason I have overwhelming support among the Jewish community that knows me best, which is the Jewish community in Chicago. And I think that anybody who has friends among the Jewish community in Chicago should check out those credentials. But I do appreciate the opportunity to clarify those concerns. And as I said that last point I would make is that you know my Pastor is going to be retiring over the next month. So my general view, and the reason that I raise this, this is always a sensitive point, what you don’t want to do is distance yourself or kick somebody away, because you are now running for President and you are worried about perceptions, particularly when someone is basically winding down their life and their career. Okay, yes.”
I AM NOT, NOR HAVE I EVER BEEN, A MUSLIM (ESPECIALLY AN ANTI-AMERICAN ONE): “Well, let’s just be very specific about what these emails have been. And they have just been virulent and started very early. And I have to say are not. I mean they are clearly political in the sense that they go in waves. And seem to track the next…the next primary or caucus. Suddenly they magically appear in great volume in whatever state it is we are campaigning. And the emails suggest that A. that I am Muslim, B. that I went to a madrassa C. that I used a Koran to swear myself into the Senate D. That I don’t pledge allegiance to the flag. There are all sorts of variations, but you get the general gist. And our general view has been, that the internet is very difficult, because it is very low cost, it can just be churned out and you can’t trace it back to where it’s coming from. What we have tried to do is just make sure that we are flooding the internet with the accurate information and pushing back as much as possible. I don’t think that we are in an era anymore where you can just ignore these things and not dignify them. There was a time when they would be amplified as consequence of you calling attention to it. I don’t think that’s the case any more because of our media age. You know we saw what happened with the swiftboat situation back in 2004. All you have to do is run the ad once and then it gets repeated. And so what we’ve done is try to lift it up and actively debunk it and encourage stories about it. If anyone is still puzzled about the facts, in fact I have never been a Muslim. We had to send CNN to look at the school that I attended in Indonesia where kids were wearing short pants and listening to ipods to indicate that this was not a madrassa but was a secular school in Indonesia. Where I attended for two year prior to coming back to Hawaii. If you look at Nicholas Kristof’s article today it gives you an indication of where I got my name. My grandfather who was Kenyan converted to Christianity then converted to Islam, my father never practiced he was basically agnostic and so other than my name and the fact that I lived in a populous Muslim country for 4 years when I was a child I have very little connection to the Islamic religion. But these are the kind of things that you deal with in politics. What is interesting is that is hasn’t worked because I haven’t been voted off the island yet. Next, yes sir.”
I BARELY KNOW BRZEZINSKI: “There is a spectrum of views in terms of how the US and Israel should be interacting. It has evolved over time. It means that somebody like Brzezinski who, when he was national security advisor would be considered not outside of the mainstream in terms of his perspective on these issues, is now considered by many in the Jewish Community anathema. I know Brzezinski he’s not one of my key advisors. I’ve had lunch with him once, I’ve exchanged emails with him maybe 3 times. He came to Iowa to introduce for a speech on Iraq. He and I agree that Iraq was an enormous strategic blunder and that input from him has been useful in assessing Iraq, as well as Pakistan, where actually, traditionally, if you will recall he was considered a hawk. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party was very suspicious of Brzezinski precisely because he was so tough on many of these issues. I do not share his views with respect to Israel. I have said so clearly and unequivocally.”
YOU CAN BE PRO-ISRAEL WITHOUT BEING PRO-LIKUD: “The others that you refer to are former members of the Clinton administration. Somebody like a Tony Lake, the former National Security Adviser, or Susan Rice -these are not anti-Israel individuals. These are people who strongly believe in Israel’s right to exist. Strongly believe in a two-state solution. Strongly believe that the Palestinians have been irresponsible and have been strongly critical of them. Share my view that Israel has to remain a Jewish state, that the US has a special relationship with the Jewish state. There’s no inkling that there has been anything in anything that they’ve written that would suggest they’re not stalwart friends of Israel. This is where I get to be honest and I hope I’m not out of school here. I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have a honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress. And frankly some of the commentary that I’ve seen which suggests guilt by association or the notion that unless we are never ever going to ask any difficult questions about how we move peace forward or secure Israel that is non military or non belligerent or doesn’t talk about just crushing the opposition that that somehow is being soft or anti-Israel, I think we’re going to have problems moving forward. And that I think is something we have to have an honest dialogue about. None of these emails talk about the fact that on the other side, members of my national finance committee, like Lester Crown, are considered about has hawkish and tough when it comes to Israel as anybody in the country. So, there’s got to be some balance here. I’ve got a range of perspectives and a range of advisors who approach this issue. They would all be considered well within the mainstream of that bipartisan consensus that I raised or that we talked about in terms of being pro-Israel. There’s never been any of my advisors who questioned the need for us to provide Israel with security, with military aid, with economic aid. That there has to be a two state solution, that Israel has to remain a Jewish state. None of my advisors would suggest that, so I think its important to keep some of these things in perspective. I understand people’s concern with Brzezinski given how much offense the Israeli lobby raised, but he’s not one of my central advisers.”
IN SEARCH OF AN UNROMANTIC PEACE PLAN: “Well here’s my starting orientation is A – Israel’s security is sacrosanct, is non negotiable. That’s point number one. Point number two is that the status quo I believe is unsustainable over time. So we’re going to have to make a shift from the current deadlock that we’re in. Number three that Israel has to remain a Jewish state and what I believe that means is that any negotiated peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is going to have to involve the Palestinians relinquishing the right of return as it has been understood in the past. And that doesn’t mean that there may not be conversations about compensation issues. It also means the Israelis will have to figure out how do we work with a legitimate Palestinian government to create a Palestinian state that is sustainable. It’s going to have to be contiguous, its going to have to work its going to have to function in some way. That’s in Israel’s interest by the way. If you have a balkanized unsustainable state, it will break down and we will be back in the same boat. So those are the starting points of my orientation. My goal then would be to solicit as many practical opinions as possible in terms of how we’re going to move forward on a improvement of relations and a sustainable peace. The question that I will be asking any advisor is how does it achieve the goal of Israel’s security and how does it achieve the goal of sustainability over the long term and I want practical, hardheaded, unromantic advice about how we’re going to achieve that.
THE PALESTINIANS NEED TO KEEP THEIR COMMITMENTS: I have consistently said this, and I have said this to Palestinians, I said this when I was in Ramallah, that you cannot fault Israel for being concerned about any peace agreement if the Palestinian state or Palestinian Authority or Palestinian leadership does not seem to be able to follow through on its commitments. And I think the approach we have to take with respect to negations is that you sit down and talk, but you have to suspend trust until you can see that the Palestinian side can follow through and that’s a position that I have consistently taken and the one I will take with me to the White House.”
IF ISRAELIS CAN DEBATE THESE ISSUES HONESTLY, SO CAN WE: One last point I’ll make on this, in terms of advisors and the kind of debate I think is fruitful, one of the things that struck me when I went to Israel was how much more open the debate was around these issues in Israel than they are sometimes here in the United States. It’s very ironic. I sat down with the head of Israeli security forces and his view of the Palestinians was incredibly nuanced because he’s dealing with these people every day. There’s good and there’s bad, and he was willing to say sometimes we make mistakes and we made this miscalculation and if we are just pressing down on these folks constantly without giving them some prospects for hope, that’s not good for our security situation. There was a very honest, thoughtful debate taking place inside Israel. All of you, I’m sure, have experienced this when you travel there. Understandably, because of the pressure that Israel is under, I think the U.S. pro-Israel community is sometimes a little more protective or concerned about opening up that conversation. But all I’m saying though is that actually ultimately should be our goal, to have that same clear eyed view about how we approach these issues.
SURE, SOME JEWS THINK THE GOP IS BETTER ON ISRAEL – BUT THEY’RE WRONG: “Well look, the Jewish community is a) diverse, b) has interests beyond Israel. There is a … the tradition of the Jewish community in America as a progressive force that is concerned with the poor, is concerned with the vulnerable, is concerned with children, is concerned with civil rights, is concerned with civil liberties. Those are values that I believe are much more evident in our Democratic Party and that can’t be forgotten. I think that what I’ve seen, and you would know better than I would, is that to the extent that there’s been bleeding over into the Republican Party, it all has to do with this issue of Israel. And what I would simply suggest is look at the consequences George Bush’s policies. The proof is in the point. I do not understand how anybody who is concerned about Israel’s security and the threat of Iran could be supportive of George Bush’s foreign policy. It has completely backfired. It is indisputable that Iran is the biggest strategic beneficiary of the war in Iraq. We have spent what will soon be close to a trillion dollars strengthening Iran, expanding their influence. How is that helpful to Israel? How is that helpful to Israel? You can’t make that argument. And so the problem that we’ve seen in U.S. foreign policy generally has been this notion that being full of bluster and rattling sabers and being quick on the draw somehow makes you more secure. And keep in mind that I don’t know anybody in the Democratic Party, and I will say this for Hillary Clinton and I will say this for myself, who has indicated in any way that we would tolerate and allow to fester terrorist threats, that we wouldn’t hunt down, capture, or kill terrorists that haven’t been supportive of Israel capturing or killing terrorists. So it’s not like we’re a bunch of folks asking to hold hands and sing Kumbiya. When Israel launched its counterattack against Hezbollah in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, I was in South Africa at the time, a place that was not particularly friendly to Israel at the time and I was asked by the press, what did you think? And I said, if somebody invades my country or is firing rockets into my country or kidnapping my soldiers, I will not tolerate that. And there’s no nation in the world that would. So I don’t see this softness within the Democratic Party on these issues. The question is, can we use our military power wisely? Can we be strategic in terms of how we move forward? And I think that is profoundly in the interests of Israel and in the interests of U.S. security.”
WHAT HAMAS NEEDS TO DO: “Now again, going back to my experiences in Israel and the discussions I’ve had with security officials there, I think that there are communications between the Israeli government and Hamas that may be two or three degrees removed, but people know what Hamas is thinking and what’s going on and the point is that with respect to Hamas, you can’t have a conversation with somebody who doesn’t think you should be on the other side of the table. At the point where they recognize Israel and its right to exist, at the point where they recognize that they are not going to be able to shove their world view down the throats of others but are going to have to sit down and negotiate without resort to violence, then I think that will be a different circumstance. That’s not the circumstance that we’re in right now. I’ve only called on men I think, I’ve got to get at least one female question… well, it’s just because I didn’t see any … in fairness to me, you guys didn’t raise your hands, ladies. This is how I end up getting into trouble here. Go ahead.”
LEARNING FROM INDONESIA: “Now keep in mind, Indonesia is not the Arab world. So its brand of Islam was always very different. Women were riding on Vespas and going to work, and people weren’t wearing headscarves until very recently – that was actually an import from the Middle East. But here’s what’s interesting about Indonesia, it’s a good case study. It had had a very tolerant, mild brand of Islam all the time that I was living there and basically up and thru 97. And what happened was that you’ll recall the Asian financial crisis hit them extraordinarily hard. Their gross domestic product contracted by 30% – they had the equivalent of a Great Depression, but this was a country that was already extraordinarily poor. So, there was a direct correlation between the collapse of that economy and the rise of fundamentalist Islam inside of Indonesia. Partly it was exported by Saudi Wahhabist schools that were sent in and financing schools there, and suddenly you started seeing head scarves on the streets and Islamic organizations that were parroting some of the fundamentalist and more fanatical brands of Islam that we associate with the Middle East. And the reason I raise that point is that although people will often say, well terrorists are drawn from the middle class and just being poor doesn’t mean that you’re automatically ascribe to violent jihadist tendencies. What is absolutely true is that in the Arab world and in the Muslim world, I do think there is a correlation between the degree to which those communities function properly, give people hope, give people a sense of direction, give children education, and how vulnerable they are to these violent ideologies.”
I AM NOT NAIVE: “So what lessons do we learn from that then? I am not naïve. There is a hard core of jihadist fundamentalists who we can’t negotiate with. We have to hunt them down and knock them out. Incapacitate them. That’s the military aspects of dealing with this phenomenon. Now somebody like a Richard Clarke would estimate that the hard core jihadists would gladly blow up this room maybe it’s 30,000 people, maybe it’s 40,000 people, maybe it’s 50,000 people. But it is a finite number. And that is where military action and intelligence has to be directed. So all the things I’ve talked about in the past – improving our intelligence capacity, improving our alliances, rolling up financial support, improving our homeland security, making sure that we have strike forces that are effective – that’s all the military, intelligence, police work that’s required.
“The question then is what do we do with the 1.3 billion Muslims, who are along a spectrum of belief. Some extraordinarily moderate, some very pious but not violent. How do we reach out to them? And it is my strong belief that that is the battlefield that we have to worry about, and that is where we have been losing badly over the last 7 years. That is where Iraq has been a disaster. That is where the lack of effective public diplomacy has been a disaster. That is where our failure to challenge seriously human rights violations by countries like Saudi Arabia that are our allies has been a disaster. And so what we have to do is to speak to that broader Muslim world in a way that says we will consistently support human rights, women’s rights. We will consistently invest in the kinds of educational opportunities for children in these communities, so that madrasas are not their only source of learning. We will consistently operate in ways that lead by example, so that we have no tolerance for a Guantanamo or renditions or torture. Those all contribute to people at least being open to our values and our ideas and a recognition that we are not the enemy and that the Clash of Civilizations is not inevitable.
“Now, as I said, we enter into those conversations with the Muslim world being mindful that we also have to defend ourselves against those who will not accept the West, no matter how appropriately we engage. And that is the realism that has to leaven our hopefulness. But, we abandon the possibility of conversation with that broader Muslim world at our own peril. I think all we do then, is further isolate it and feed the kinds of jihadist fanaticism that I think can be so… “