It was hard last night to get first hand accounts of yesterday’s meeting, described below, between President Obama, a few of his aides, and 37 Jewish Congress members.
Mostly, I got prefab statements, from the White House and some congressional offices.
Steve Rothman of New Jersey was kind enough to call in and give me a rundown, but I wanted an Obama-skeptic view, and Eliot Engel of New York gave me those insights this afternoon.
I updated our story with Engel, and here’s what I included:
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, 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."
"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." Going into November midterm elections, Engel said, "we’ve got to make sure that everyone knows the bond is unbreakable."
Here are some more of his insights (the italicized parts in parentheses are paraphrased):
They realized they messed up on a number of things, and there’s a lot of concern in the Jewish community about where the administration stands in the Middle East peace process. He understood there was a problem.
I thought the tone of the administration’s chastisement of Israel was wrong, everything that had toned down whern the vice president was in Israel, and then everything inflamed again with statements from the president and the secretary of state.
I also wanted to press the president on that there ought to be no obama plan for peace. There should be no attempt to force a plan down the people negotiating. We should not countenance a (Palestinian deadline for statehood.)
He said he had no intention of imposing an agreement (although he did not count out at some point) making his views known.
If the Palestinians catch wind of an agreement imposed, there would be no progress. Obama said that he had no plans to impose a settlement that he wanted the parties to negotiate
He felt everyone knew what the final settlement would be and he wouldn’t come up with an Obama plan.
(Engel also noted, like Rothman did, the areas where Obama shows his support for Israel — in defense assistance, at the United Nations, etc. I asked him if, per this Politico account of what Sen. Chuck Schumer suggested, whether he agreed that Netanyahu should not also endeavor to talk up areas where the relationship is thriving.)
Netanyahu felt somewhat humiliated by the tongue lashing of him. There’s the whole impression that Netanyahu was left to cool his heels (when he met with Obama in March) . Netanyahu has tried to put his best face on the situation, that the U.S. and Israel have an unbreakable bond. The president said he thought it would be good if some of us spoke to Netanyahu.
(Engel closed on a classic note of cautious optimism.)
I hope that the president and his advisers got the gist of what we said. It’s in the president’s credit that he had the meeting. He mentioned that Jews were in the forefront of the civil rights movement, he always felt a bond with Israel and with Jews. Some of us wanted to show where he went astray.