WASHINGTON — President Obama told Jewish leaders Tuesday that he'll talk to the Israeli press next month to sell the Iran deal in Israel, according to two sources who attended the meeting.
Obama was asked during a meeting with Jewish leaders at the White House whether he'd thought about taking the case for the deal to the Israeli public, Greg Rosenbaum, the chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, told BuzzFeed News. Obama pointed out that a delegation of Israeli reporters were visiting Washington this week and had met with deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. The president said he plans to "sit down with Israeli journalists and tell them my view of this and make the case of this deal and that way engage the Israeli public," Rosenbaum said.
"He expects that in early September he’ll probably sit for another interview with Israeli television," said another source who was in the room who spoke on condition of anonymity. Obama sat for an interview with Israel's Channel 2 in June.
The meeting, held in the Cabinet Room on Tuesday, included over 20 leaders from Jewish communal and pro-Israel organizations, including some who are for the Iran deal, such as J Street, and some who are against it, like AIPAC. The meeting lasted over two hours and Obama and Vice President Biden were there the whole time, as well as Rhodes, White House Jewish Liaison Matt Nosanchuk, and, for part of it, National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Later in the discussion, Obama referenced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's own attempt to influence public perceptions of the deal in a country other than his own, saying that "no other world leader would even have the idea
of coming to Congress and making a speech against a specific policy of a sitting president of the United States," the source who was in the room said.
Though attendees say the discussion was civil and respectful throughout, Obama and some of the leaders in the room disagreed during back-and-forths on the tone of the debate surrounding the deal, as has been reported in other outlets and newsletters since the meeting. Representatives from AIPAC and from the Conference of Presidents raised concerns about the term "warmonger" being used against opponents of the deal by proponents of the deal, Rosenbaum told BuzzFeed News. One source who was in the room said that half of the meeting was taken up by discussion of the debate surrounding the deal, and not the deal itself.
The Jewish leaders' concerns about the tone of the debate stemmed from Obama's conference call with progressive groups last week, in which he said the same "array of forces" who got the U.S. into the Iraq War were now opposing the Iran deal.
"The president said, 'I'm not saying everyone opposed to this Iran deal was responsible for the Iraq war,'" Rosenbaum said. "'I'm saying there are people who oppose the Iran deal who supported the Iraq war.'"
Obama pointed out that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a proponent of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and now fiercely opposes the deal, and said that overthrowing Hussein had been the single biggest victory in the last decade for Iran, Rosenbaum said.
According to a source who was in the room, Obama said he would be sensitive to Jewish leaders' concerns about the tone of the criticisms.
Obama got into a back-and-forth with Lee Rosenberg, AIPAC's president, about AIPAC's lobbying activities, and criticized AIPAC for only giving administration officials 30 minutes to meet with AIPAC activists who were in town to lobby Congress against the deal last week, Rosenbaum and the other source in the room said. He also suggested that AIPAC is spreading inaccurate information about the deal. "You guys go up on the Hill, that’s your right and I salute that right," Obama said, according to Rosenbaum, "but you pass out supposed fact-sheets to Congressmen that are not factual and then I’ve got to go sit with that congressman for 45 minutes and explain what wasn’t factual in the fact-sheets they were given."
Obama defended his tough response to the deal's critics with a veiled criticism of AIPAC, saying "if you weren’t running 20 million in ads and were just playing it straight and leaving members of Congress to vote their conscience, I wouldn’t have to do everything that I'm doing," a source in the room said. AIPAC is backing a new 501(c)4 group, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, which is expected to spend around $20 million on television ads opposing the deal around the country.
An AIPAC spokesperson declined to comment about the meeting.
The tone of the discussion did not become heated, though Obama did express frustration, Rosenbaum said.
"Obviously [Obama] didn't convert the opponents in the room, but he forced the opponents to rethink the manner of their opposition," said one source with close knowledge of the meeting. "We'll see how that plays out. I know that there is a sentiment within some of the opposing groups, not by everyone, but there's a concern about the ramifications of this deal within the community. Either way, the anti-deal groups are spending the money they raised."
The president is giving a speech at American University on Wednesday to defend the deal, and will reportedly argue that the deal is the most consequential foreign policy decision since the Iraq War and say that the people who boosted the Iraq War now are against the Iran deal.
A White House spokesperson didn't immediately return a request for comment about the meeting.