Inside Obama’s Meeting with Jewish Leaders

U.S. President Barack Obama listens to comments to reporters by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington

HEARD YESTERDAY: President Obama spent around two and a half hours yesterday, on his birthday, meeting with Jewish leaders in the Cabinet room of the White House to discuss the Iran agreement. We spoke with several attendees, including Greg Rosenbaum and Andrew Weinstein who did not request anonymity, to hear how the meeting went.

Other meeting participants included Vice President Biden, Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, Matt Nosanchuk, AIPAC’s Michael Kassen and Lee Rosenberg, J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami and Alexandra Stanton, ADL’s Marvin Nathan, CoP’s Steve Greenberg and Malcolm Hoenlein, AJC’s Jason Isaacson, OU’s Nathan Diament, Ameinu’s Kenneth Bob, JFNA’s Jerry Silverman, JCPA’s Susan Turnbull, Rabbi William Gershon of the Rabbinical Assembly, Reform’s Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Robert Wexler, John Ruskay, UJA’s Alisa Doctoroff, WJC’s Robert Singer, Alan Solow, Gary Torgow, and Fredrick Schaufeld.

According to Rosenbaum, the President began the meeting by taking time to go through the arguments against the agreement and responding to each point thereby causing several of the attendees to switch their questions for the Q&A. The room was respectful and a significant period of time featured the President and his friend Lee Rosenberg, representing AIPAC, going back and forth. Rosenberg questioned the President’s remarks last week where he said opponents of the deal also supported the decision to go to war in Iraq.

The President responded that he genuinely believes that if this deal does not go through then we will be drawn into a military conflict with Iran, an asymmetrical conflict that would have Israel bearing the brunt of the Iranian attacks. The President did acknowledge that not every opponent of the deal supported the Iraq war but that it was ‘undeniable’ that many of the same voices did.

The President said that while everyone has a right to express their opinions, the debate on Iran needs to be on the facts. The President specifically called out AIPAC’s fact sheet from last week as ‘inaccurate.’ He said he understood that AIPAC was going to spend the money they raised to run ads but he asked that the ads be accurate and the arguments based on the merits. The President challenged AIPAC saying “if you don’t like me commenting on this stuff, don’t run the ads.”

Malcolm Hoenlein told the President that the debate is on the merits, nothing personal, to which the President quipped “I don’t take this personally, certainly not in year seven. My skin is too thick. We are having an interesting family discussion here…which I am comfortable with given my commitment to Israel and the Jewish community.” The President and others did express concern that this debate would have the effect of dividing the community for many years to come.

President Obama mentioned Prime Minister Netanyahu several times throughout the meeting. The President noted that while he understood that many in Israel have strong objections to “dealing with the devil,” the Prime Minister is wrong on this issue. He also said Bibi is an example of a deal opponent who argued for toppling Saddam Hussein and invading Iraq. The President noted that, in light of this deal, the U.S. and Israel are going to need to increase intelligence cooperation but that so far the Prime Minister has prevented the necessary discussions as he feels that would be the equivalent of waving the white flag. The President also commented on Bibi’s address to Congress saying “it was unprecedented for any world leader to accept such an invitation from only one party and that no leader could have or would have done it.”

The President was asked by J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami if he has any plans to address Israelis who are largely against the deal. He replied that Ben Rhodes met with a visiting delegation of Israeli reporters the previous day and that he expects to give future interviews to the Israeli media come September.

On sanctions, the President noted that “it’s a fantasy to force U.S. leverage on the world economy” and said a “President Cruz, Rubio or Walker wouldn’t do it either.”

CNN Quote: “It’s my birthday and I’m going to be blunt,” Obama told the group of 22 Jewish leaders who gathered in the Cabinet Room on his 54th birthday, according to one attendee. [CNN] • The quote we heard was that the President said “it’s been a really busy day. You’d think they’d be nicer to me on my birthday but it’s a tight schedule and I wanted to make sure we had a few hours to discuss this important issue.”

Washington Post: “At one point, he essentially said this would not be as big an issue and as big a fight if basically the pro-Israel community was not making it into a big fight,” said one participant who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private meeting. “That’s the only reason why we are where we are. So essentially, the takeaway was that he was broadly asking the organizations to consider stepping back.” The President suggested to AIPAC that “if you guys would back down, I would back down from some of the things I’m doing,” said the person involved in the discussion, who added, “I don’t think AIPAC will take him up on it.” [WashPost]


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