President Barack Obama continued his outreach to the Jewish community in two separate meetings Monday during which he became emotional in describing his commitment to the Jewish people and the State of Israel, according to several attendees. And he vowed never to negotiate a deal with Iran that would jeopardize the Jewish state.
“I would be ashamed of myself as a human being if I didn’t side with Israel, given what the Jewish people have gone through,” he reportedly told Jewish leaders during a 70-minute White House meeting.
There was quiet in the room as Obama spoke, and one participant said later that the president “sounded sincere. … He was eloquent — very emotional. It was something I have not experienced before from him.”
Just last week, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with many of the same Jewish leaders to explain the framework agreement reached with Iran over its nuclear program.
The Jewish Week spoke with several people who attended Obama’s meeting with Jewish leaders, as well as one Obama supporter who attended a second, two-hour meeting Obama held with major Jewish Democratic funders and supporters. Participants said they were told by Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, that the president’s comments were off the record, and all spoke on condition that they would not be identified.
The several participants The Jewish Week interviewed who went into the meeting critical of Obama’s position on the Iran deal said they were not swayed by his remarks, though there was an impression that the president’s concern for Israel was genuine.
One of those said he left “disturbed” by the meeting, which he described as “very intense.” And he said that it was clear that the disagreements between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are more than just over policy.
According to another participant, “He [the president] said he would never, ever do to any other world leader what Netanyahu did to him — addressing another leader’s legislative body without first telling the leader of that country. It was clear that has created a deep divide. There is no question that he [Obama] is still angry and insulted by the way that happened. But he said he respects the democratic process and would work with the new Israeli government.”
Asked whether the U.S. would continue to have Israel’s back in the face of anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations, Obama was reportedly noncommittal, saying each resolution would be considered on its own merits.
“The only reason he said he is not so solid on that was that in the past there was always a peace process and the two parties were involved in peace talks,” one participant recalled, adding that Obama said Netanyahu is no longer supportive of a two-state solution.
Asked how he could still support a two-state solution given that Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, Obama gave a lengthy answer in which he reportedly said in essence that Hamas would have to be dealt with and that the U.S.-designated terror group presents an obstacle to peace.
Obama did not ask the Jewish leaders to lobby Congress regarding any Iran deal that is eventually reached. A U.S. Senate panel adopted a bipartisan bill Tuesday that gives Congress a chance to review any deal reached with Iran, and Obama said he would sign it should it pass both houses of Congress. (See Editorial, page 6.)
Although several topics were discussed, the majority of both meetings focused on Iran and the deal the U.S. is negotiating with five other world powers designed to keep Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
Obama reportedly said that during the talks — which ended earlier this month with a framework agreement that all seven countries are committed to finalizing by June 30 — Iran revealed more information about its nuclear program than even the International Atomic Energy Agency knew. The IAEA is supposed to be the international community’s watchdog over the Iranian nuclear program, but Iran has refused to answer many of its questions.
Asked why Obama was making such a concerted effort to woo support from the Jewish community, one Jewish leader replied: “He knew he was losing the PR war and that many people don’t like him. He sees the polls, realized he had done something wrong and wanted to fix it.”
A Gallup poll released this week found that Obama’s job approval rating among American Jews has dropped from 61 percent to 50 percent in just the first three months of this year. It found also that for the first quarter of this year, 54 percent of American Jews liked the job Obama was doing as president, compared with an average of 46 percent among all Americans. That 8 percent gap is lower than the average 13-point gap through most of Obama’s years in the White House.
One of those who attended the meeting for Jewish supporters of the president said he believes Obama called the meeting because “he wants us and others to get the word out about the depth of his commitment to the Jewish community and his love for Israel. He believes an agreement with Iran could be a game changer for the future of the Middle East and that it holds a promise for everyone.”
One Jewish leader who has attended meetings with several presidents over the last 20 years said the meeting with Obama was “one of the best ever.”
“There seemed to be a universal appreciation for him calling the meeting, for how honest he was and how concerned he was about the misunderstandings that seem to be out there about his commitment to Israel,” the participant said. “And he [the president] spoke about how deeply he feels about global anti-Semitism and of his steadfast commitment to Israel and its right to thrive and live in peace. He stressed that he has no illusions about Iran and the nature of the threat it poses. He insisted that sanctions alone would not work [to stop Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb], and said the military option is still on the table — that the military plan has been put in place.”
Said the Jewish supporter of Obama: “I’m more impressed than ever that we have a president of such high quality who is on the verge of making an agreement that is so beneficial to the world and the region in terms of a peaceful future.”