In a discussion participants described as “no holds barred,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) conferred with a cross-section of New Jersey’s Jewish leaders May 17, a day before he joined other Jewish members of Congress in a White House meeting with President Obama.
“Before he went to the White House, Lautenberg really wanted to be able to say he had touched base with his Jewish leadership” and relate to the president what those leaders are saying, said Allyson Gall, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Metro New Jersey Area. “We have some issues with Obama.”
Gall spoke with NJ Jewish News after the gathering in Lautenberg’s Newark office, which included federation executives, AJC leaders, and representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Gall said one key item was “a call for Obama to visit Israel. He has not been there lately, and he needs to walk through the neighborhoods of Jerusalem and see how close together they are.”
On the subject of Iran’s nuclear development, the AJC leader said the president should push China and Russia to enact sanctions, “and when a bill comes to his desk that calls for stronger sanctions, he should sign it.”
Gall said Lautenberg and his staff gave the delegation “absolute assurance that Israel will get all the foreign aid it needs and that in terms of strategic cooperation, relations between the United States and Israeli governments are better now than they were under President Bush.”
But, she cautioned, “there will be open disagreements about settlement issues.”
“Lautenberg said he himself has been feeling a little anxious about some of the vibes and the messages that had been coming out of the White House,” Gall said.
Max Kleinman, executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, also attended the meeting. The senator, he said, “was concerned with the speed bump that the United States and Israel went through over housing in Jerusalem, with the Iranian nuclear issue, and that the Americans would impose a peace plan on Israel.”
“We are also concerned whether the sanctions on Iran will be watered down,” he told NJJN.
According to Jacob Toporek, executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, the senator left the leaders “with the impression that he will be forthright in advocating that a strong United States-Israel relationship is in the best interests of the United States and the democratic values Israel shares with us.”
We are impressed with Sen. Lautenberg’s degree of concern about these issues.”
A day later, the president spent 90 minutes with Lautenberg and 36 other Jewish members of Congress, exchanging views on his relations with the Israeli government and how to counter the perception that he is not pro-Israel.
“We discussed Iran, the situation in the Middle East, the efforts of the Republican Party to distort President Obama’s positions on Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” New Jersey Rep. Steve Rothman (D- Dist. 9) said afterward.
Also discussed was the announcement that the Obama administration had rallied support from world powers for a new set of sanctions on Iran.
“The conversation included an update on proximity talks and administration efforts to strengthen Israel’s security, including the administration’s recent decision to provide Israel with an additional $205 million in funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system,” a White House statement said, referring to Israel’s short-range missile defense program.
Rothman, an early backer of Obama’s presidential candidacy, said the members thanked Obama for such initiatives, describing Obama as “the best president on U.S.-Israel military and intelligence cooperation in American history.”
Much of the talk was about how to spread the word about such assistance to counter claims by Republicans and others that Obama is not pro-Israel, Rothman said.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who had criticized the Obama administration for openly pressuring Israel after tensions intensified in March over Israel’s settlement building, said it was a frank discussion that was initiated by the White House.
Heading into November midterm elections, Engel said, “We’ve got to make sure that everyone knows the bond is unbreakable.”
Not present at the meeting were two of Congress’ three Jewish non-Democrats: Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Attending, however, were some of Obama’s toughest critics in the wake of the tensions in March: Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) among them.
Berkley said that she emerged believing Obama is on Israel’s side, but that he needs a better understanding of the nuances. “I do want to see the president step up and vocalize his support for Israel far more than he has,” Berkley said an article redistributed by her office.
“The fact that the administration met with these congressional leaders shows that the administration understands our concerns. I hope they are beginning to address them,” said Kleinman.
NJJN staff writer Robert Wiener contributed to this article.