It’s the latest chapter in the right’s Obama-hates-Israel storyline: A top Obama adviser allegedly told Jewish leaders on a private conference call that the administration is pressuring Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians in a manner that’s at odds with Obama’s public position on the conflict.
But I’ve now spoken to two major figures in the Jewish community who were on the call — both of whom are widely regarded to have impeccable pro-Israel credentials — and they tell me that the claim is false.
The right has been a tear over this ever since the Washington Times reported that Steven Simon, a top White House official on Mideast affairs, told Jewish leaders on the call that the administration is pressing Benjamin Netanyahu to publicly adopt Obama’s stance that the 1967 lines with swaps should be the basis for peace talks. The WashTimes claimed to have listened to audio of the call. The Post’s Jennifer Rubin amplified the claim in a piece that drew wide notice, insisting that this represents an effort to “bully Israel.”
Rubin argued that this represents a departure from Obama’s stated position at his AIPAC speech, in which he reiterated that Israel can’t be expected to sit down with those who want to destroy it. Republican officials pounced. Former Bush official Elliott Abrams argued: “If the reports are right, the U.S. is now abandoning the Quartet Principles — and asking Israel to negotiate with a Palestinian side that includes Hamas without Hamas taking one single step away from terror.”
But the reports are not right, according to two people who were on the call: Alan Solow, the former head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Stuart Eizenstat, a former Clinton administration official who has worked extensively on Mideast issues.
They both tell me that there was no discussion whatsoever of pressuring Israel to come to the table absent a recognition by Hamas of the Quartet Principles — which demand recognition of Israel, renouncing terrorism, and abiding by past agreements. They both asserted that on the call, Simon merely restated Obama’s public position on these issues.
“I don’t know how anyone in their wildest imagination got the idea that there was any implication of any additional pressure on Israel,” Eizenstat told me. “Quite the contrary — the call was meant as reassurance of the President’s position on not negotiating with Hamas” if they don’t accept the Quartet principles.
“There was not even a whisper of any additional pressure,” he continued.
Solow agreed. “There was no indication of any kind that the U.S. was departing from the Quartet principles,” he told me. “The Quartet principles were reaffirmed.”
Solow added that there was no consternation from the pro-Israel listeners on the call, who would have been alarmed if they had heard what the right is now claiming was said. “The questions following the initial presentation did not consist of any pushback, which certainly would have occurred had the tone been as described,” Solow said.
In fairness, Rubin tried to get the White House to comment on the Washington Times account of the call, but a White House spokesman didn’t directly answer Rubin’s questions as she framed them, instead referring her back to Obama’s speeches. And to be sure, both Solow and Eizenstat are Obama supporters who would be expected to push back on this kind of thing, and may well do more of it as the campaign heats up. But among those who follow these issues closely, they are considered to be extremely credible. And if their rendering of what happened is accurate, days and days of right-wing criticism of Obama on Israel is premised largely on a falsehood.
There is supposed to be a tape of the call, so it will be interesting to see if it now surfaces.