President Obama met with Jewish American leaders at the White House on Monday in a bid to defuse antagonism toward him and to convince them that he shares their concerns about the safety of Israel and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The meetings in the Roosevelt Room were designed to improve prospects for a deal being negotiated to limit Iran’s nuclear program — and hang on to the support of a key Democratic constituency.
At the first meeting, the president spent an hour with the leaders of major Jewish organizations. Then the discussion continued with Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice; Vice President Biden’s national security adviser, Colin Kahl; and three other senior officials.
At the second session, Obama met with “community leaders,” many of them major political contributors. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said they were “outspoken advocates who may not hold official positions or leadership positions in those organizations but are, in their own right, effective advocates.”
One person who attended the first meeting called the session “positive” and said Obama was “heartfelt about his connection to Israel. Very moving.”
Another said that “the president talked about how deeply he feels about Israel and the Jewish people and anti-Semitism. It was not just about Iran. It was much, much deeper in terms of the president sharing with us how he felt.”
“All of us begin with a sense of skepticism knowing what Iran is,” one Jewish leader said. “A lot of questions were asked. How would this deal with this, how it would deal with that?”
As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee takes up a bill that would force Obama to bring an Iran deal to Congress for approval, the administration’s meetings with Jewish leaders were just part of an offensive to drum up support in Congress.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz this week are briefing members of Congress about the current framework of a deal they hope to hammer out by June 30. At the White House briefing Monday, Earnest said any lawmaker can request a classified briefing that would also include members of the intelligence agencies.
Earnest said the president and other administration officials have made more than 130 phone calls to members of Congress.
The American Jewish community has strong relationships with members of Congress. Its support could be even more important given the strong criticism of the Iran agreement coming from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has urged the administration to hold out for a better deal.
One person who attended the meeting of major Jewish organizations said that Obama talked about the challenges in Congress, but he did not ask the leaders to help on that front.
“I’m sure that that elephant was in the room, but it didn’t surface,” said one of the participants.
For the first meeting, the White House invited about 16 leaders of Jewish American organizations, including Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Robert Cohen, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; Allen I. Fagin, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union; and Abraham Foxman, national director of the
Earnest said the meetings were “an opportunity for the president and members of his team to talk to these advocates for the Jewish community about what’s in the interim agreement with Iran.”
Asked before the sessions whether Obama would ask Jewish leaders to lobby lawmakers, Earnest said, “We certainly would welcome any public expression of support from anybody — certainly these individuals.” And, he added, “we would welcome the expression of that support directly to members of Congress.”