President Obama, in a private conference call Wednesday, told an audience of Jewish leaders to discount non-constructive statements made by Israeli and Palestinian leaders as Middle East peace talks move forward, saying that such remarks are all part of the negotiating game.
The groups represented on the call were from across the Jewish religious spectrum: They included the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, the conservative Rabbinical Assembly, the reform Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
Obama implored the rabbis on the call to publicly support the talks, and to try to rally their own people to support the negotiations. The call was timed in advance of the start of the Jewish high holy days, when the Rabbis see the largest turnout of the year among their congregants. Along those lines, he asked them to discount statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when they say things in public that make the talks seem doomed. That's mainly for the local television cameras, Obama said.
"I guarantee you over the next four months, six months, a year, in any given week there's going to be something said by someone in the Palestinian Authority that makes your blood boil and makes you think we can't do this," Obama said, according to a recording of the call provided to The Cable. "We're going to have to work through those things."
He emphasized that he would give the same message to Arab groups, regarding statements by the Israeli government they might find objectionable.
"What you're going to see over the next several months is that at any given moment, either President Abbas or Prime Minister Netanyahu may end up saying certain things for domestic consumption, for their constituencies and so forth, that may not be as reflective of that spirit of compromise we would like to see. Well, that's the nature of these talks," Obama said.
Obama referred directly to statements made by both leaders this week that seemed to show an unbridgeable gap over whether Israel must extend its 10-month partial settlement construction freeze, which expires on Sept. 26. The next round of the talks, to be held in Sharm el Sheikh and Jerusalem next week, will be the last official round before the deadline.
"There is going to be an immediate set of difficulties surrounding the existing moratorium on settlements," Obama admitted, pointing out the public positions of the two leaders.
"On one hand, you have Prime Minister Netanyahu saying ‘there's no way I can extend it.' There's President Abbas saying ‘this has to be extended for these talks to be effective," Obama said. He maintained that there was a compromise to be struck.
"I am absolutely convinced that both sides want to make this work and both sides are going to be willing to make some difficult concessions," Obama said. He did not specify what a potential compromise would look like.
Overall, Obama told the rabbis that he believed both Netanyahu and Abbas were serious about peace and said the first round of talks last week in Washington exceeded his expectations.
"I am stunned at how cordial and constructive the talks were," he said.
But Obama's main message on the call was a plea to the rabbis to actively support the talks, or at least not to actively undermine them.
He asked the religious leaders to help him promote the talks among Jewish communities both in American and Israel, and "to give these talks a chance and not look for a reason why they won't succeed."
Regarding interfaith relations in the United States and the treatment of Muslim Americans in particular, Obama again asked the rabbis for help. "It is very important for leaders in the Jewish [community] to speak from a deep moral authority in making sure that those Muslim-Americans trying to practice their faith in this country can do so without fear or intimidation," he said.
He did not mention the Park 51 Community Center project by name.
On Iran, Obama argued that the sanctions announced by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and others were having an effect on the regime in Tehran.
"Every assessment that we've seen so far is that the degree of international coordination that's being implied in enforcing these sanctions is unprecedented and the Iranian regime has been shocked by our success," Obama said. He said the Israeli assessment matched his own.
While the peace talks and the Iran threat are not necessarily linked, Obama told the rabbis that resolving Israel's disputes with its neighboring Arab states would increase Iran's isolation.
Obama also delivered a message of urgency regarding the peace talks. "If that window closes, it's going to be hard to reopen for years to come," he said. "We're not going to get that many more opportunities."Obama wished all the rabbis "L'shana Tovah," which means Happy New Year in Hebrew, and "Todah Rabah," which means thank you.
"With you I hope and pray this year will be a year of health and happiness, joy and justice, and ultimately perhaps a year of peace," he said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.