WASHINGTON (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended policies that sometimes drew dissent from American Jews, saying Israel’s national security interests were paramount.
“Israel has a national security interest related to its very survival,” Netanyahu said after his meeting here on Monday with President Donald Trump when asked by a reporter about the disparity between his closeness with Trump and Trump’s low approval ratings among American Jews. “It’s my responsibility as prime minister of Israel to advance those interests as best I can. We seek always as far as possible agreement with the administration in Washington.”
Netanyahu alluded to the tensions he had with President Barack Obama, who was popular among American Jews.
“Sometimes there’s disagreement” with the United States “and sometimes we even acted in the greater interest” of Israel.
“This has nothing to do with the American political scene,” Netanyahu said to Israeli and Jewish media reporters in a briefing on his meeting with Trump. “I have the greatest respect for the American Jewish community,” he said, noting he was scheduled to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday. “But there are issues affecting the American Jewish community that are not reflected in the Israeli polity.”
Earlier, meeting with Trump, Netanyahu lavished praise on the president for his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He likened Trump to Cyrus, the biblical Persian king who allowed the Jews to return to the land of Israel; to Lord Balfour, who drafted the post-World War I British document promising the Jews a homeland in Mandate Palestine; and to Harry Truman, the U.S. president who did not heed counselors who advised him not to recognize Israel.
“I want to tell you that the Jewish people have a long memory, so we remember the proclamation of the great king, Cyrus the Great, Persian king 2,500 years ago,” he said. “And we remember how a few weeks ago, President Donald J. Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Mr. President, this will be remembered by our people through the ages.”
American Jews, who consistently vote Democratic, disapprove of Trump in greater numbers than Americans generally. Many cite his perceived bigotries and his policies targeting immigration, minorities and women.
Trump, however, has advanced policies that more robustly reflect Netanyahu’s agenda than any prior president. In addition to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he has made tough demands of Iran, threatening to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal he and Netanyahu revile. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has warned other nations not to oppose the United States when it defends Israel in the body.
Netanyahu said he was more sensitive than any of his predecessors to American Jewish complaints about the preeminence of the Orthodox in Israel.
“There isn’t a prime minister who tried to work on these issues more than I did,” he said, referring to his efforts to deal with the thorny question of conversion, as well as to bids by non-Orthodox groups to conduct organized prayer at the Western Wall. “These problems are not immediately solvable.”
Netanyahu said he was close to concluding a plan to create a space for a multidenominational space for prayer at the Western Wall.
“There will be a prayer space for all denominations at the Kotel,” using the Hebrew name for the holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Netanyahu said about half of the time he spent with Trump was discussing Iran and how best he should “fix” the nuclear deal, which trades sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu and Trump want the West to address what they say are the deal’s flaws, including Iran’s missile programs and the clauses in the deal that allow Iran to return to enriching weapons grade fissile material in 10-15 years.
The Israeli leader also said that he and Trump discussed the Iranian threat in Syria, where Iran is an ally of the Assad regime in that country’s civil war. Also discussed was Trump’s efforts, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Netanyahu said he also raised with Trump the status of Jonathan Pollard, the American who spied for Israel and was released on probation under Obama. Pollard’s travel and activities are limited.