Thursday 21 May 2015

Obama Seeks to Boost Ties With Jewish Americans

WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama, anticipating intensified criticism in coming weeks of his pursuit of an Iran nuclear deal, is trying to boost ties with Jewish Americans after a bitter, public fallout with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The reassurance campaign comes a week after Mr. Obama spent two days personally trying to win over Arab states, which have also been skeptical of his pursuit of an agreement with Iran to curtail its nuclear program.

Mr. Obama is scheduled to deliver remarks on Friday at Adas Israel synagogue, one of the largest in Washington, D.C., for a speech to mark Jewish Heritage Month. In advance of the visit, he sat for an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg to outline his case.

“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” Mr. Obama said in the interview published Thursday. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”

The U.S. and five other world powers are aiming to reach a final nuclear deal with Iran by the end of June.

Mr. Obama addressed one of the key concerns among opponents of a deal—that the billions of dollars Iran will receive as a result would go to its military and further destabilize the region. He argued that a potential $150 billion windfall would be received in phases and that Iran’s leaders are under political pressure to use much of it to boost the economy, which has been burdened by economic sanctions for several years.

He also warned against Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, seeking to match Iran’s nuclear program, saying “their covert—presumably—pursuit of a nuclear program would greatly strain the relationship they’ve got with the United States.”

Mr. Obama’s Iran outreach has met resistance from Arab leaders ‎and members of Congress, and Mr. Netanyahu has been among the White House’s fiercest critics.

Long-simmering tensions between Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu over diplomatic talks with Iran boiled over earlier this spring in the weeks before a deadline for a framework ‎for the current deal now being negotiated.

Weeks before the March 31 deadline—and before Israeli voters decision to re-elect Mr. Netanyahu—the Israeli leader delivered a speech before Congress excoriating the emerging Iran agreement. The White House fumed over what Mr. Obama considered a stunt by Mr. Netanyahu designed to undermine the president’s top foreign policy priority.

The confrontation escalated when Mr. Netanyahu said while campaigning in Israel that he wouldn’t support a Palestinian state as part of a Middle East peace deal. The White House shot back, saying Mr. Obama was reviewing longtime U.S. policy of opposing any unilateral action, such as at the United Nations, to create a Palestinian state.

The episode generated concern among Jewish leaders. The White House has privately done some outreach in attempt to repair any rifts. Mr. Obama, in The Atlantic interview, expressed confidence in his support among American Jews.

“I consistently received overwhelming majority support from the Jewish community, and even after all the publicity around the recent differences that I’ve had with Prime Minister Netanyahu, the majority of the Jewish American community still supports me, and supports me strongly,” he said.

Public exchanges between the White House and Mr. Netanyahu during the last two months have been relatively quiet as Mr. Netanyahu formed a government, a process recently completed.

But the White House anticipates a ramping up of criticism of an Iran deal as negotiators try to meet a June 30 deadline. Administration officials have said Mr. Obama doesn’t plan to meet with Mr. Netanyahu before the deadline.

After meetings with representatives from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, Mr. Obama won the Arab states’ support for a “verifiable” Iran deal. But skepticism persists among Arab leaders that Iran will agree to such a stringent deal, the only one Mr. Obama has said the U.S. would accept.

Those concerns were again stoked on Wednesday in comments by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, that Iran wouldn’t allow any inspections of its military sites.

Write to Carol E. Lee at [email protected]

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