WASHINGTON – The Obama administration was in the hotseat at the inaugural Israeli American Council National Conference Friday, facing critiques from former Republican presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney and former Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman.
Friday marked the first-ever national gathering of Israelis living in America. Organizers said that the event sold out weeks in advance, noting that the entire Israeli-American community is currently estimated at over 600,000.
Speaking days after a strong Republican victory in Congressional elections, Romney described his former opponent’s approach to Iran as “naïve” while Lieberman emphasized his disapproval of recent criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by an unnamed administration official who used the term “chickenshit.”
Romney complained that Obama “continues to diminish himself and America and leads bad people to think America can be pushed around.” At the same time, in a criticism of the president’s policies on Israel, he slammed Obama for being “divisive and dictatorial to our friends.”
The former Massachusetts governor, who was defeated by Obama in 2012, castigated the president’s Iran policy — particularly a secret letter that the president sent to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month offering to work together against the Islamic State terror group in exchange for a deal on Tehran’s nuclear program.
The US is one of six states negotiating with Iran in the hopes of reaching a nuclear agreement by November 24 – a deadline that seems increasingly improbable as large gaps between the parties still remain.
“That the president would write a letter of this nature, in effect legitimizing a nation and a leadership that is violating international norms and is threatening the world, is so far beyond the pale, I was stunned. I was speechless,” Romney said. Romney said the “right kind of approach in dealing with Iran is that we consider them a pariah, their leaders are shunned and we exert that kind of moral suasion on them.”
The White House confirmed that Obama sent the letter to Khamenei.
Dismissing the utility of partnering with Iran, Romney said it was Iranian backing for the Syrian regime against the rebels that sparked the rise of the Islamic State.
The cohort of self-identified Israeli-Americans, who gathered together with Lieberman, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor, the new Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, actress Noa Tishbi, and businessman Sheldon Adelson, were enthusiastic in their applause for Romney – the keynote speaker for the conference’s opening plenary.
Lieberman described the organization’s inaugural conference a “history-making” event.
“You are starting something bold and important. You are going to serve two great causes larger than yourself – the cause of Israel and the cause of America,” he told the crowd that gathered for what was billed as a “Shabbat dinner” together.
Lieberman seemed to share the audience’s enthusiasm for Romney, who has not ruled out an additional bid for the presidency in 2016.
“I hope and believe that Mitt Romney’s days of national service and national leadership are far from over,” Lieberman said, before launching into a critique of what he described as “the outrageous statements made by a person in the Obama administration.”
“I am glad we didn’t have chicken” for dinner, the former senator – and former Democrat – quipped.
Lieberman went on to describe the anonymous comments made by a senior administration official to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg as “offensive and absolutely wrong.” The administration has tried to distance itself from the comments published last week, which were the latest incident in a string of diplomatic spats between Jerusalem and Washington.
In the coming days, the conference will feature both Democrat and Republican members of Congress as well as Erdan, Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer; former Israeli UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman; National Security Council member Dr. Anat Berko; and entrepreneurs Adelson, Yossi Vardi, and Haim Saban.