Obama grilled on ‘red lines’ during pre-holiday call to rabbis

In annual Rosh Hashanah discussion with religious leaders, US president talks up peace negotiations, but is challenged on Syria and Iran

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

President Barack Obama, August 2013 (photo credit: White House, Flickr)
President Barack Obama, August 2013 (photo credit: White House, Flickr)

A pre-Rosh Hashanah conference call from US President Barack Obama meant to send a message of support for the peace process got sucked into the Syria crisis when a rabbi confronted the president over his policies toward Damascus and Tehran.

During the brief and largely formal call with nearly 1,000 American rabbis, at least one religious leader took the opportunity to push Obama on the resilience of “red lines” and the message that inaction on Syria sent to Iran.

The annual call was co-hosted by the White House and the four major American rabbinical organizations: the Central Conference of American Rabbis; the Rabbinical Assembly; the Rabbinical Council of America; and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. It was held on Friday afternoon, but word of the unusual confrontation was confirmed to The Times of Israel on Monday by participants.

With all eyes on Damascus, Obama said that he hoped that Jewish congregations across the country would be supportive of his administration’s efforts to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table.

Obama’s optimistic message was challenged, participants said, when one rabbi pointed out that before the 2012 presidential elections, Israel was pressured not to act against Iran and promised that the US had a “red line” for action against that country’s nuclear program.

The rabbi, who is affiliated with the Conservative Movement, noted that the only other time that the Obama administration had used that terminology was with regard to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. He left the implication open-ended.

According to participants, Obama ducked the question. Instead, he reiterated statements made earlier in which he said generally that it was important that there were repercussions for the nerve gas attack by the Assad regime that killed hundreds of Syrian civilians almost two weeks ago. The violation of international law, the president said, must not go unanswered.

On Friday night, Obama changed his mind on going ahead quickly with a military strike against Syria, deciding instead to go to Congress for authorization to use force.

During the call, the president also offered greetings to the rabbis and their congregations for a sweet, happy and healthy New Year. The president noted that the High Holidays provide an opportunity for Jews to reflect on the past year and recommit themselves to our core values.

Obama tied that commitment to the recent commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, saying that the commemoration had offered the American people a chance to recommit to their core values. He also noted the crucial role played by American Jews in the Civil Rights Movement both at the time of the March and in addressing the key challenges America faces as a nation today.

The president also offered his reflections on a number of domestic issues, including the upcoming enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act, and hinted that he planned on pursuing legislative action to reduce gun violence.

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