Obama, Netanyahu, and thank goodness for the French guy


JTA’s Ron Kampeas at last night’s Presidential press conference at the White House.

The White House blasted an e-mail last week to the press corps asking for comers to President Obama’s second open-ended press conference.

I don’t know how many replied, but all 350-plus seats were filled; JTA made the cut (here and here for our briefs), along with The Jerusalem Post, Ha’aretz, and Israel TV channels Two and Ten. (It was cute seeing Aharon Barnea and Gil Tamari shoot each other’s segments — who says journalists don’t play nice?)

A relatively substantive "read and watched by Jews" contingent did not necessarily mean that the president was going to address "our issues." There were lots of Turks, Latin Americans, French, Spanish, British and journalists of other nations in the room.

I did have a question prepared, maybe a little long (see below). We had no idea whether he was going to pick us — I know of at least one journalist who was told she would be picked who did not make the cut, yet Ann Compton of ABC Radio clearly did not expect her question to come up. So some reporters are pre-ordained, others get struck by lightning, so to speak.

(Pause for an explainer: by "open ended," I mean the kind of press conference where the president goes beyond the two question format — one to a wire service and one to a TV network/major daily. Anyone theoretically can get picked in these hour-long affairs, but some picks are clearly aimed at getting a message across; Obama, for example, seized upon a question from a Stars and Stripes reporter having to do with procurement to veer into reassurances about supporting veterans. So it’s a little like a stacked lottery.)

This press conference was overwhelmingly about economic recovery and the stimulus. "Our issues" came up, right at the end. A staffer shouted out, "last question Mr. President," the president scanned what appeared to be at least a few more names from a list, and chose Stefan Collison of AFP, the French news service. Here’s how it went:

Question: Mr. President, you came to office pledging to work for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. How realistic do you think those hopes are now, given the likelihood of a prime minister who is not fully signed up to a two-state solution and a foreign minister who has been accused of insulting Arabs?

Obama: It’s not easier than it was, but I think it’s just as necessary.

We don’t yet know what the Israeli government is going to look like, and we don’t yet know what the future shape of Palestinian leadership is going to be comprised of.

What we do know is this: that the status quo is unsustainable, that it is critical for us to advance a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in their own states with peace and security.

And by assigning George Mitchell the task of working as special envoy, what we’ve signaled is that we’re going to be serious from day one in trying to move the parties in a direction that acknowledges that reality.

How effective these negotiations may be, I think we’re going to have to wait and see. But, you know, we were here for St. Patrick’s Day, and you’ll recall that we had what had been previously sworn enemies celebrating here in this very room.

You know, leaders from the two sides of Northern Ireland that, you know, a couple of decades ago — or even a decade ago — people would have said could never achieve peace, and here they were, jointly appearing, and talking about their commitment, even in the face of violent provocation.

And what that tells me is that, if you stick to it, if you are persistent, then these problems can be dealt with.

That whole philosophy of persistence, by the way, is one that I’m going to be emphasizing again and again in the months and years to come as long as I’m in this office. I’m a big believer in persistence.

I think that, when it comes to domestic affairs, if we keep on working at it, if we acknowledge that we make mistakes sometimes, and that we don’t always have the right answer, and we’re inheriting very knotty problems, that we can pass health care, we can find better solutions to our energy challenges, we can teach our children more effectively, we can deal with a very real budget crisis that is not fully dealt with in my budget at this point, but makes progress.


When it comes to Iran, you know, we did a video, sending a message to the Iranian people and the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And some people said, "Well, they did not immediately say that we’re eliminating nuclear weapons and stop funding terrorism." Well, we didn’t expect that. We expect that we’re going to make steady progress on this front.

We haven’t immediately eliminated the influence of lobbyists in Washington. We have not immediately eliminated wasteful pork projects. And we’re not immediately going to get Middle East peace. We’ve been in office now a little over 60 days.

What I am confident about is that we’re moving in the right direction and that the decisions we’re making are based on, how are we going to get this economy moving? How are we going to put Americans back to work? How are we going to make sure that our people are safe? And how are we going to create not just prosperity here, but work with other countries for global peace and prosperity?

And we are going to stay with it as long as I’m in this office, and I think that — you look back four years from now, I think, hopefully, people will judge that body of work and say, "This is a big ocean liner. It’s not a speedboat. It doesn’t turn around immediately. But we’re in a better place because of the decisions that we made."

Already, I’m hearing people make a little too much out of his immediate rejoinder, "It’s not easier than it was." A dis at Benjamin Netanyahu? I don’t know. Hold it up to the light and what’s he saying is … it’s not easier than it was. Nor is it harder. And that might not even be because of Bibi.

Still. he’s adamant: two-state talks, whatever anyone says. And he’s going to stick to it.

Also, as Hilary Krieger of the Jerusalem Post pointed out to me, he got Iran into his  "questions I might have answered had they been asked" wrap-up. He’s serious about engaging with the Islamic Republic, he’s not going to be talked down from it.

Another one of "our issues" he treated was embryonic stem-cell research. In a thoughtful answer to a reporter from the Washington Times, Obama suggested he struggled with the wuestion and would consider reversing his reversal of Bush’s ban if adult stem cell research looked promising:

I wrestle with it on stem cell; I wrestle with it on issues like abortion.

I think that the guidelines that we provided meet that ethical test. What we have said is that, for embryos that are typically — about to be discarded, for us to be able to use those in order to find cures for Parkinson’s or for Alzheimer’s or, you know, all sorts of other debilitating diseases, juvenile diabetes — that it is the right thing to do.

And that’s not just my opinion. That is the opinion of a number of people who are also against abortion.

Now, I am glad to see progress is being made in adult stem cells. And if the science determines that we can completely avoid a set of ethical questions or political disputes, then that’s great.

I have no investment in causing controversy. I’m happy to avoid it if that’s where the science leads us.

He also dealt with his proposal to reduce the write-off for charitable deductions:

This provision would affect about 1 percent of the American people. They would still get deductions. It’s just that they wouldn’t be able to write off 39 percent.

In that sense, what it would do is it would equalize — when I give $100, I’d get the same amount of deduction as when some — a bus driver who’s making $50,000 a year, or $40,000 a year, gives that same $100. Right now, he gets 28 percent — he gets to write off 28 percent. I get to write off 39 percent. I don’t think that’s fair.


If you look at the evidence, there’s very little evidence that this has a significant impact on charitable giving. I’ll tell you what has a significant impact on charitable giving, is a financial crisis and an economy that’s contracting. And so the most important thing that I can do for charitable giving is to fix the economy, to get banks lending again, to get businesses opening their doors again, to get people back to work again.

So here’s the question I would have asked: President Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, the incoming Israeli prime minister, has said that Palestinian statehood is not viable right now, with Hamas controlling Gaza, and that he would prefer to focus on economic development for the Palestinians; you are commited to two state talks. Successive Israeli governments have said that a settlement freeze should follow a diminishment in violence; U.S. policy is that such a freeze should be simultaneous and is long overdue. Israel’s military brass says Iran’s nuclear weaponization is on the threshold and Israel may have to take action once it crosses; last week, in your Nowrooz message, you said now is not the time for threats. How do you propose reconciling these differences with Israel?

Long winded, I know, but hey, you get one shot (and I didn’t get mine). One Facebook Friend begged me not to get Iran in the question (presumably because only beltway Jews are preoccupied with the issue), but how could one not, given the timing? And even Obama wanted to get to it.

Couple more things: I’m grateful to AFP for asking the question, but Jamie Kirchick of The New Republic had a point when he wondered whether European reporters routinely press leaders of democratic countries about dealing with unsavory Arab officials (Remember Mustafa Tlas, the long-time Syrian defense minister who peddled the blood libel?)

And this: The president’s energy is unabated. Bounded onto the podium, bounded off. Does he sleep?

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