Obama to U.S. Jews: Still Room for Iran Diplomacy, No Point in 'Chest Beating'

In meeting with Jewish leaders ahead of Israel visit, the U.S. president reiterates opposition to nuclear Iran, but quotes Chinese saying: Build a golden bridge for your opponent to retreat upon.

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U.S. President Barack Obama told Jewish leaders Thursday that while he was determined to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, he does not believe in “extra chest-beating” and is convinced that there is still room and time for a diplomatic solution.

In a White House meeting with two dozen American Jewish leaders in advance of his upcoming trip to Israel, Obama said that the U.S. and Israel share the same intelligence information regarding Iran, but are divided about the exact point at which “diplomacy becomes irrelevant." Obama added that the gaps between the U.S. and Israel, however, “are not as big as the differences of opinion inside Israel itself.”

According to participants in the off-record meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Obama said he would continue to press for a diplomatic solution, and quoted a Chinese saying attributed to strategist Sun Tzu: “Build a golden bridge for your opponent to retreat upon.” When he was told that Israelis say that they need more “clarity” concerning the U.S. position on Iran, Obama replied: “But that isn’t because we haven’t been clear.”

Obama said that he wouldn’t be bringing any specific peace plan, and a White House official said on background that the president would have “an opportunity to consult with the Israeli government about a broad range of issues - including Iran, Syria, the situation in the region, and the peace process.” Nonetheless, Obama said that he would tell Israelis that the only way to achieve real security is through a peace agreement and a two-state solution.

Obama said he realizes that Israel lives “in a tough neighborhood." He said he would stress both sides’ obligation to negotiate. When told that he should emphasize his recognition of Israel’s desire for peace, Obama agreed, but added “it’s more important what you do for peace.”

Obama confirmed that he would be addressing students at Jerusalem’s Conference Center (Binyanei Hauma) but added that he hadn’t written his speech yet. The White House official said that Obama “underscored that the trip is an opportunity for him to speak directly to the Israeli people about the history, interests, and values that we share.” Obama told the Jewish leaders that he planned to praise Israeli ingenuity and the importance of technological progress for the entire Middle East.

Obama also discussed Israel-Turkey relations at the meeting, saying that he wanted the two countries to reconcile, but that he was angry and concerned over the remarks made last week by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he equated Zionism with a crime against humanity.

Obama said that in addition to publicly condemning the statement, Secretary of State John Kerry had conveyed to Erdogan in Ankara last week the United States’ objection to the Turkish leader's remarks.

One of the participants suggested that Obama meet with freed Hamas prisoner Gilad Shalit. Obama was happy to hear that Shalit is now a sports commentator adding that this would give the two topics of common interest.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, told Haaretz that the meeting with Obama was a positive one and that he believes the president will have an excellent visit in Israel.

One Jewish leader who was present at the meeting said later that the president’s tone and words of support were such that he is convinced that the visit will prove a success.

Another Jewish leader present at the meeting, who asked to remain anonymous, told Haaretz that Obama said he believed there was still an opportunity for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian issue. The president told the group that sanctions were working and creating a rift in Iran but that he was determined to leave all options on the table. The Jewish leader said Obama told the group that his policy regarding the Iranian nuclear program was prevention and not containment.

Preparations are in full force for the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama on March 20.Credit: Reuters

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