Obama Says He Criticizes Settlements Out of Friendship to Israel: 'I'm Basically a Liberal Jew'

Speaking at a N.Y.C. synagogue, Obama said the situation in the West Bank could endanger Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state

Former-U.S. President Barack Obama greets the audience at Temple Emmanuel in Manhattan, New York, January 25, 2017.
Gili Getz

WASHINGTON – In a rare public appearance, former U.S. President Barack Obama spoke at a synagogue in New York City this week about his relationship with the Jewish community and his administration's policy toward Israel. Obama described himself as "basically a liberal Jew" and said that criticizing Israel's settlements in the West Bank was part of his support and friendship to Israel

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The event at Temple Emanuel in Manhattan marked the first time that Obama spoke publicly about Israel since leaving office. The 44th president said that his administration gave Israel more military support than any previous administration, referring to a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the United States and Israel during his last year in the White House. "This is not a matter of dispute," he said. 

Obama defended his decision to abstain at a December 2016 UN Security Council vote denouncing Israeli settlements. He explained that vetoing the resolution would have hurt "our credibility on human rights." He also stated that "to be a true friend of Israel it is important to be honest about it, and the politics of this country sometimes do not allow for it." 

Obama said that the situation in the West Bank was "not sustainable" in the long term and could endanger Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state. He warned that settlements could make the creation of a Palestinian state practically impossible if they continued to grow at the current pace. Obama also warned about what he called a "truth decay" in the political discourse in the United States. 

The $225 event tickets sold out shortly after registration opened in September. Obama said during the event that a number of his staffers – current and former – told him their family members were going to attend the evening. 

Gili Getz, an Israeli photographer who attended the event, told Haaretz that the crowd was "thrilled" by Obama's appearance. "You felt that he was very popular in that room. There were a lot of cheers. The place was packed – no empty seats. It was a hometown crowd for him." 

Obama, Getz added, "was visibly frustrated when he spoke about the settlements. His main message was that being a true friend to Israel means not only giving it military and security backing, but also speaking honestly about how the building in the settlements endangered Israel and hurt its' vision as a Jewish and democratic state."