In between briefings and phone conversations with Arab leaders, President Barack Obama took time on Friday for a pre-Rosh Hashanah conference call with 1,200 rabbis from all Jewish denominations.
Obama, speaking as news on anti-American protests poured in from capitals across the Arab world, acknowledged the difficulties the United States faces in dealing with the changing face of Arab countries. “The United States must be aligned with democracy and human rights,” he said, adding, however, in reference to the Arab Spring that “I knew this process will not be easy.” The President told listeners on the call that there are “streams of extremism” within Islam, which include anti-Semitism.
Touching on the troubled relations with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the issue of Iran, Obama made clear his refusal to set “red lines” as Israel demanded.
“No leader ties his hands,” Obama said, according to participants. “It won’t be easy, but if we would resort to military action, it would not involve me laying out a set of conditions.” The President made clear he will not declare “red lines” and argued that the Israeli prime minister wouldn’t either.
Obama attempted to convince the Jewish audience that there is no difference between his view of Iran and that of Netanyahu’s. “There is no daylight,” Obama said. The President added that “there may come a time” when the U.S. decides to take military action, but that will not happen until “we’ve exhausted all options.” Obama told the rabbis he believes there is still “time and space” for diplomacy.
In the phone conversation the president explicitly acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself. “Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about our resolve and about Israel’s right to defend itself.”
The conference call was organized by leaders of the rabbinical arms of all four denominations and was hosted by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Obama greeted the rabbis for the new year and said it is a time for reflection and for a look at the future.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.