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Obama and the Jews Break Bread

President reassures legislators on Israel, Iran

Marc Tracy
May 21, 2010
Obama yesterday.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Obama yesterday.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Tuesday afternoon, after The Scroll was already off celebrating Shavuot, President Obama met with 37 Jewish senators and congressmen at the Old Executive Office Building to reassure him of his unequivocal for support for Israel’s security. (All of the over 40 Jewish legislators were invited; notably absent was Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), the Minority Whip and sole Republican.) “One part group hug and one part gripe session,” is how Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-New York) described it.

And apparently it went fairly well. According to various reports, Obama was most popular on the questions of Iran and Syria, and a bit less so when it came to the ongoing proximity talks with the Palestinians. “I walked through a minefield in the Middle East and I stepped on the land mines,” Obama reportedly said. “I got some toes blown off.” (The White House stated that the event was “a wide ranging and productive exchange about their shared commitment to peace and security in Israel and the Middle East.”)

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York) were Obama’s toughest customers. They accused him of putting disproportionate pressure on Israel in the proximity talks and of considering proposing his own plan. He nixed this, saying, “I cannot impose a settlement. Israel is a sovereign nation and the notion that I would or could do that is simply wrong.” In fact—somewhat surprisingly—he said that the issue even of West Bank settlements is best left for final-status talks, rather than the current indirect peace talks.

The 90-minute meeting’s most heated exchange reportedly came when Lieberman asserted Obama’s main regional goal appeared to be engaging Arab countries. Obama denied this.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), who was quite critical of the administration during the darkest days of the recent imbroglio over settlements, reportedly praised Obama’s stances on Iran’s nuclear program and the allegations that Syria was transporting missiles into Lebanon. He even said that Israel should be more vocal in its praise here. (It helped that the meeting was held the same day the United States submitted its China-supported sanctions draft.)

One attendee told Laura Rozen that his boss “came away feeling like [Obama] is genuinely committed to accomplishing a lasting [Israeli-Palestinian peace] agreement, and that he feels it strongly.” Maybe nothing, however, could accomplish quite what an Obama visit to Israel woul: Such a trip was suggested, and Rep. Steve Rothman (D-New Jersey) said he was sure Obama would follow through. Preferably not on a week during which Tablet is off half the time.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.