WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama exchanged views with Jewish Congress members on his relations with Israel and discussed strategies on how to counter the perception that he is not pro-Israel.
"We discussed Iran, the situation in the Middle East, the efforts of the Republican Party to distort President Obama’s positions on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) said afterward.
The 90-minute meeting at the White House on May 18 drew 37 of the more than 40 Jewish members in both houses of Congress.
"The conversation included an update on proximity talks and administration efforts to strengthen Israel’s security, including the administration’s recent decision to provide Israel with an additional $205 million in funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system," a White House statement said, referring to Israel’s short-range missile defense program.
Also discussed was the announcement earlier the same day that the Obama administration had rallied support from world powers for a new set of sanctions on Iran.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who had criticized the Obama administration for openly pressuring Israel after tensions intensified in March over Israel’s settlement building, said it was a frank discussion that was initiated by the White House.
"It was a very frank and good talk," he said. "The president said he’d like to continue this."
Engel called it a "mistake to publicly air grievances against Israel, while at the same time they were silent on things the Palestinians had done to undermine the peace process. We questioned why this had to happen. When allies have disagreements as they usually do, it has to be behind closed doors."
Rothman, an early backer of Obama’s presidential candidacy, said the members thanked Obama for such initiatives, describing Obama as "the best president on U.S.-Israel military and intelligence cooperation in American history."
Much of the talk was about how to spread the word about such assistance to counter claims by Republicans and others that Obama is not pro-Israel, Rothman said.
Engel said he couldn’t blame the Republicans for seizing a natural opening.
"You can’t blame the Republicans for trying to move in and take advantage of something," he said. "If there hadn’t been a chastising of Israel, it wouldn’t have given the Republicans an opening."
Heading into November midterm elections, Engel said, "We’ve got to make sure that everyone knows the bond is unbreakable."
Not present at the meeting were two of Congress’ three Jewish non-Democrats: Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Attending, however, were some of Obama’s toughest critics in the wake of tensions in March between Israel and the United States over settlement building: Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), among them.
Berkley told the Associated Press that she emerged believing Obama is on Israel’s side, but that he needs a better understanding of the nuances.
"I do want to see the president step up and vocalize his support for Israel far more than he has," Berkley told the AP in an article resdistributed by her office.