Polite statement after White House talks belies differences on Iran

Unusual meeting of selected Jewish leaders with senior Obama officials comes amid signs of divergence in US and Israeli positions on nuclear crisis

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

The White House (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
The White House (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON — A group of American Jewish leaders met Tuesday at the White House with senior Administration officials to discuss efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

The meeting, arranged at the last minute, was described in a joint statement issued by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations as a “constructive and open exchange.” The sides agreed “to continue the consultation to enhance the prospect of achieving a transparent and effective diplomatic resolution,” the statement said.

There was nothing in the statement, however, to suggest that problems and disagreements between some of the groups and the administration had been resolved. AIPAC, for instance, has been lobbying hard for a new sanctions bill that is supposed to go to a vote in the Senate soon, and which the Obama administration has indicated it does not want to see advanced.

The Jewish leaders — from the Conference, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and AIPAC — said the Administration officials reaffirmed President Barack Obama’s “commitment to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear capability and that all options remain viable to assure that end.” Members of left-leaning organizations said that they had been excluded from the session by the White House.

One person present described the atmosphere as “congenial,” and said several aspects of US policy on Iran were discussed, including the new international negotiations and the pending Senate legislation.

The meeting was arranged amid an escalation of signals that the Obama and Netanyahu governments are parting ways on Iran strategy, and those leaders invited came from groups that deal closely with Israel and its security concerns. A number of groups normally high on the list for White House briefings were not invited, including representatives of the Reform and Orthodox movements.

A White House meeting with a broader group of Jewish-American organization leaders had been scheduled for Monday, but on Sunday, White House officials contacted some organizations to tell them that the meeting was delayed. When the meeting was rescheduled for Tuesday, one source told The Times of Israel, White House officials once again contacted the excluded organizations and explained to them that the meeting was only with the organizations that had challenged the administration’s policies on Iran.

A statement from Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, confirmed that the timing of the meeting was related to talks with Iran. “Following on the recent P5+1 talks with Iran, and in advance of the next round of talks November 7-8, Senior Administration Officials today briefed the leaders of several Jewish organizations on our progress,” Meehan said. “The administration officials made clear that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that our preference is to resolve the issue peacefully through diplomacy.”

The unusual session followed a tense, albeit coded, public exchange between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of State John Kerry in the last two days over Iran, as well as persistent backing by pro-Israel groups for a congressional bid to enhance Iran sanctions despite White House pleas to put new sanctions on hold.

On Sunday, addressing his Cabinet, Netanyahu derided in unusually sharp terms the attempts to talk Iran down from 20 percent to 3.5 percent uranium enrichment. “The Iranians are intentionally focusing the discussion on this issue. It is without importance,” said Netanyahu, who has insisted that Iran must dismantle all enrichment capabilities as part of a deal to end sanctions aimed at ending its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Netanyahu did not specify Kerry as advancing the proposal, but made it clear his remarks were made in the context of talks he had with Kerry last week in Rome. “This was the focus of the long and detailed talks I had with John Kerry,” he said.

Kerry appeared to return the jab in an address Monday evening to the Ploughshares Fund, a group that advocates nuclear disarmament. “The president has charged me to be and has welcomed an opportunity to try to put to the test whether or not Iran really desires to pursue only a peaceful program, and will submit to the standards of the international community in the effort to prove that to the world,” Kerry said.

“Some have suggested that somehow there’s something wrong with even putting that to the test,” Kerry said. “I suggest that the idea that the United States of America is a responsible nation to all of humankind would not explore that possibility would be the height of irresponsibility and dangerous in itself, and we will not succumb to those fear tactics and forces that suggest otherwise.”

In recent days a number of leading Jewish groups, including AIPAC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish Federations of North America, have reiterated support for advancing through Congress new and enhanced Iran sanctions, although the Obama administration has made clear publicly that it would prefer Congress put off dealing with the legislation until after the next round of talks in mid-November.

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, in May. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)
US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, in May. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

On Monday, Obama spoke with Netanyahu by phone about Iran’s nuclear program, Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and other Mideast issues. The phone call was part of their “regular consultations,” said a White House statement. “The two leaders agreed to continue their close coordination on a range of security issues.”

In Rome last week, Netanyahu held a marathon session of discussions with Kerry, much of which were focused on the Iranian threat.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly last month, Netanyahu said, “We all want to give diplomacy with Iran a chance to succeed, but when it comes to Iran, the greater the pressure, the greater the chance.” He added: “When it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, here’s my advice: Distrust, dismantle and verify.”

Olli Heinonen, former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Association, said Monday that Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build an atomic weapon within two weeks and had, “in a certain way,” already reached the point of no return in its nuclear program.

JTA, Gavriel Fiske and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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