By Dovid Efune
Members of a group of Jewish supporters of the Democratic Party who met with President Barack Obama this week urged him to remove the long-standing American veto protection of Israel at the United Nations. The group, affiliated with the left-wing lobby group J Street, pledged to support the president within the Jewish community in the event of a Security Council resolution calling for the creation of a Palestinian State.
The exchange took place in the second of two meetings Obama held with American Jewish leaders to discuss the current negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, as well as other regional issues. According to a source who was in the room, one J Street supporter told the president that if he decided to back a Palestinian state resolution over Israeli objections, “let us know first, and we’ll do the legwork for you, in the community… so you’re not going to come in cold.” Among the J Street supporters who were part of the delegation meeting with Obama were Alexandra Stanton, Lou Susman and Victor Kovner.
The atmosphere at that second meeting was described as pleasant and cooperative, in marked contrast to the first meeting, described by one source as “ungiving, very stern and tense.”
The Algemeiner spoke to four individuals who attended the meetings, as well as one other who did not attend, but was extensively briefed on what was said. All of the sources declined to be named for this report, as they were not authorized by the Administration to speak on the record.
The discussions totaled approximately two hours and forty minutes and were likely the most significant ones between the two sides since the start of the Obama presidency. “For sure this was the most important” one prominent Jewish leader stated, “because it was about Iran.”
Regarding the first meeting, at which senior representatives of groups like the World Jewish Congress, the Conference of Presidents and the Anti-Defamation League were present, one source said the conversation was “difficult” and “depressing.” The source added that “nobody was breaking ground, they were at cross purposes.” An attendee who spoke with JTA described the gathering as “intense” and said, “There was an openheartedness, there were some deep reflections by the president.” Other participants who spoke with JTA used the term “therapeutic” to describe the tone of the talks.
The President joined the first meeting at 1:50 pm, about 5 minutes after it was opened by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and spoke for about forty minutes before he took any questions. He reportedly discussed “everything in the world” including Israel and Iran. He left the meeting at about 3:00 pm.
In his opening remarks, Obama reiterated the sentiments he raised in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, published on April 5th, in which he asserted that “It has been personally difficult for me to hear the sort of expressions that somehow we don’t have, this administration has not done everything it could to look out for Israel’s interest.”
One source told The Algemeiner that “the President acted as though he was very hurt that he has been so supportive of Israel and at this critical juncture finds that people are so critical of him for trying to keep Iran from having a nuclear bomb.” The President was at times anguished, participants told the JTA.
Obama addressed his relationship with Israel and recognized “the motivations of the Jewish community when they express concern” about the Iran deal “because of existential threats coming from [Iran’s] Supreme Leader and others.”
In a report on Monday, shortly after the meetings took place, The Washington Post cited a participant who said, “The president talked about how deeply he feels about Israel and the Jewish people and antisemitism. It was not just about Iran. It was much, much deeper in terms of the president sharing with us how he felt.”
“It was very cordial, he had all our attention,” another participant told The Algemeiner. “He spoke from the heart.”
“In that part of the discussion, I think people around the table appreciated those comments,” yet another commented.
After the President’s introduction “there was ample opportunity for everybody to weigh in on a whole range of issues” one of the attendees said. “Anyone around the table who had something to say… the opportunity certainly was there.”
“The impression [President Obama] was left with was that many remain skeptical about Iranian intentions, not about the [White House’s] intentions in trying to negotiate to end the program, we have differences about that,” one participant said.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, Founder and Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told The Algemeiner that he raised two questions with the President. The first was about the silence of the P5+1 powers in the face of threats to annihilate Israel, and the second was about why Israel should be required to relinquish land to the Palestinians while Hamas remains in control of the Gaza Strip.
Hier referenced an upcoming presidential trip to Berlin to commemorate the victims of World War II, and asked in light of Iranian threats to destroy Israel, “what is the meaning of the memorial if we don’t take action when [something similar] occurs.”
One source quoted a “well known Jewish leader” as telling the President that “unfortunately we have learned the lesson that when people say they want to exterminate us, they tend to try it.”
“The language at the table was, ‘what about this? and what about that?’ and what about the issue of billions of dollars that will come into the hands of the Iranians when the sanctions regime is loosened, or ended, that they would then plow back into their terrorist activity or to other military related issues,” an attendee said. “What was being said was, here are our concerns, we are in the middle of this, and these concerns are going to continue, because we don’t feel quite comfortable with where we are now.”
In terms of the takeaway from the first meeting, one participant said, “I think [Obama] understands that people are upset, and that people have a different, a very urgent view of the Iranian threat” but added that the leaders in the room “would not have felt that he totally understood our concerns.”
“Many people walked in having questions and left having questions,” another said. “I don’t know that positions were necessarily changed around the table.”
The second meeting, which was largely stacked with Obama allies, “was very pleasant,” according to one of the guests. It was “all his friends,” the guest said. As well as J Street supporters, others present included Haim Saban, the Israeli-American entertainment mogul who has been critical of Obama’s Middle East policies, and Democratic donors associated with AIPAC, including past presidents Amy Friedkin and Howard Friedman
Obama presented himself as thinking “like an ultra-liberal Jew” and conveyed the “J Street mantra,” according to the source.
Although some pointed questions were asked, Obama faced far less resistance, and was even encouraged to take steps against Israel and remain steadfast in his approach to Iran negotiations.
According to the source, one “J Streeter” pushed Obama to remove the American veto protection of Israel at the UN in the event that a Security Council resolution called for the creation of a Palestinian State.
The individual “said if you decide to go against Israel at the UN, ‘let us know first, and we’ll do the legwork for you, in the community… so you’re not going to come in cold…’ and they pushed him to do it,” the participant told The Algemeiner. “Another major Jewish leader… not J Street, more centrist, but he wants to cosy up to Obama, says [regarding Iran] ‘you are doing the right thing, we are behind you 100 percent’.”
Obama said that despite his disagreements with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on a host of issues, “the countries are still working tightly together on security and military issues,” and “the fact that him and Bibi are not getting along is not hurting the relationship between the two countries.”
Obama was also asked if he would invite Netanyahu to visit the US in the near future. The President said he would not because “‘all Bibi will do is… go out there and publicly criticize me,’ so it will be awkward.” The President said “we’ll wait until July,” according to the source.
The President also criticized efforts in the Senate to assume a role in the negotiations through the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which unanimously passed review at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday and will now move to the full Senate for a vote.
The President expressed a “deep, deep resentment of Republicans in Congress…. and a feeling that Congress is out of bounds” in its actions on Iran, according to one of the sources.
The meetings with the Jewish groups were initiated as part of an extensive outreach effort by the Administration to win support for a framework nuclear agreement reached with Iranian negotiators in Switzerland last week. Critics of the deal say the White House has made far too many concessions in the talks. The agreement’s most vocal opponent, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, has said that it paves Iran’s path to nuclear armament and leaves Israel vulnerable. Israel has long called for the removal of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure as well as the cessation of uranium enrichment.
Just days before the meetings were held, a Gallup poll found that American Jews’ approval of President Obama has dropped 23 percentage points since 2009, and the gap between Jewish approval and general American approval of Obama-which has been marked by higher Jewish approval-is narrowing.