Obama Defends the Iran Nuclear Deal

In an interview, the U.S. president ties his legacy to a pact with Tehran, argues ISIS is not winning, warns Saudi Arabia not to pursue a nuclear-weapons program, and anguishes about Israel.

Obama
Win McNamee / Getty Images
May 21, 2015, 8:54 a.m.

On Tues­day af­ter­noon, as Pres­id­ent Obama was bring­ing an oc­ca­sion­ally con­ten­tious but of­ten il­lu­min­at­ing hour-long con­ver­sa­tion about the Middle East to an end, I brought up a per­sist­ent worry. “A ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­an Jews want to sup­port the Ir­an deal,” I said, “but a lot of people are anxi­ety-rid­den about this, as am I.” Like many Jews — and also, by the way, many non-Jews — I be­lieve that it is prudent to keep nuc­le­ar weapons out of the hands of anti-Semit­ic re­gimes. Obama, who earli­er in the dis­cus­sion had ex­pli­citly labeled the su­preme lead­er of Ir­an, Ayatol­lah Ali Khame­nei, an anti-Semite, re­spon­ded with an ar­gu­ment I had not heard him make be­fore.

“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still go­ing to be around, God will­ing. If Ir­an has a nuc­le­ar weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said, re­fer­ring to the ap­par­ently al­most-fin­ished nuc­le­ar agree­ment between Ir­an and a group of world powers led by the United States. “I think it’s fair to say that in ad­di­tion to our pro­found na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests, I have a per­son­al in­terest in lock­ing this down.”

The pres­id­ent — the self-con­fid­ent, self-con­tained, coolly ra­tion­al pres­id­ent — ap­pears to have his own anxi­et­ies about the nuc­le­ar talks. Which isn’t a bad thing.

Jimmy Carter’s name did not come up in our Oval Of­fice con­ver­sa­tion, but it didn’t have to. Carter’s tra­gic en­counter with Ayatol­lah Ruhol­lah Khomeini, the lead­er of the Is­lam­ic Re­volu­tion, is an ob­ject les­son in the mys­ter­i­ous power of Ir­an to un­der­mine, even un­ravel, Amer­ic­an pres­id­en­cies. Ron­ald Re­agan, of course, also knew something of the Ir­a­ni­an curse. As Obama moves to con­clude this his­tor­ic agree­ment, one that will — if he is cor­rect in his as­sess­ment — keep Ir­an south of the nuc­le­ar threshold not only for the 10- or 15-year peri­od of the deal, but well bey­ond it, he and his ad­min­is­tra­tion have de­ployed a raft of na­tion­al se­cur­ity-re­lated ar­gu­ments to but­tress their cause. But Obama’s part­ing com­ment to me sug­gests he knows per­fectly well that his per­son­al leg­acy, and not just the fu­ture of glob­al nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ef­forts (among oth­er things), is rid­ing on the pro­pos­i­tion that he is not be­ing played by Amer­ica’s Ir­a­ni­an ad­versar­ies, and that his repu­ta­tion will be forever tar­nished if Ir­an goes side­ways, even after he leaves of­fice. Obama’s crit­ics have ar­gued that he is “kick­ing the can down the road” by strik­ing this agree­ment with Ir­an. Obama, though, seems to un­der­stand that the can will be his for a very long time.

When we spoke on Tues­day, he men­tioned, as he of­ten has, his feel­ings of per­son­al re­spons­ib­il­ity to Is­rael. In the peri­od lead­ing up to the June 30 Ir­an ne­go­ti­ation dead­line, Obama has been fo­cused on con­vin­cing Ar­ab and Jew­ish lead­ers — people he has helped to unite over their shared fear of Ir­an’s he­ge­mon­ic am­bi­tions — that the nuc­le­ar deal will en­hance their se­cur­ity. Last week, he gathered lead­ers of the Gulf Ar­ab states at Camp Dav­id in an at­tempt to provide such re­as­sur­ance. On Fri­day, he will be vis­it­ing Wash­ing­ton’s Adas Is­rael Con­greg­a­tion, a flag­ship syn­agogue of Con­ser­vat­ive Juda­ism (also, co­in­cid­ent­ally, the syn­agogue I at­tend) os­tens­ibly in or­der to give a speech in hon­or of Jew­ish Amer­ic­an Her­it­age Month (whatever that is), but ac­tu­ally to re­as­sure Amer­ic­an Jews, par­tic­u­larly in the wake of his ti­tan­ic battles with Is­rael’s prime min­is­ter, Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu, that he still, to quote from my 2012 in­ter­view with him, “has Is­rael’s back.” (There are no plans, as best as I can tell, for Obama to meet with Net­an­yahu in the com­ing weeks; this ap­pears to be a bridge too far for the White House, at least at the mo­ment.)

“In ad­di­tion to our pro­found na­tion­al-se­cur­ity in­terests, I have a per­son­al in­terest in lock­ing [the nuc­le­ar deal] down.”

A good part of our con­ver­sa­tion on Tues­day con­cerned pos­sible flaws in the as­sump­tions un­der­gird­ing the nuc­le­ar deal, at least as the deal’s pro­vi­sion­al para­met­ers and pos­sible con­sequences are cur­rently un­der­stood. (A full tran­script of the con­ver­sa­tion ap­pears be­low.)

Obama also spoke about IS­IS’s latest surge in Ir­aq, and we dis­cussed the wor­ries of the Ar­ab states, which re­main con­cerned not only about Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar am­bi­tions, but about its re­gion­al med­dling and its pat­ron­age of, among oth­er rep­re­hens­ible play­ers, Le­ban­on’s Hezbol­lah and Syr­ia’s As­sad re­gime. Ten­sions between the U.S. and the Gulf states, I came to see, have not en­tirely dis­sip­ated. Obama was adam­ant on Tues­day that Amer­ica’s Ar­ab al­lies must do more to de­fend their own in­terests, but he has also spent much of the past month try­ing to re­as­sure Saudi Ar­a­bia, the linch­pin state of the Ar­ab Gulf and one of Amer­ica’s closest Ar­ab al­lies, that the U.S. will pro­tect it from Ir­an. One thing he does not want Saudi Ar­a­bia to do is to build a nuc­le­ar in­fra­struc­ture to match the in­fra­struc­ture Ir­an will be al­lowed to keep in place as part of its agree­ment with the great powers. “Their cov­ert — pre­sum­ably — pur­suit of a nuc­le­ar pro­gram would greatly strain the re­la­tion­ship they’ve got with the United States,” Obama said of the Saudis.

(RE­LATED: How Obama Is Spin­ning Con­gress’s Ir­an Deal)

As in pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had with Obama (you can find tran­scripts of these dis­cus­sions here, here, and here), we spent the bulk of our time talk­ing about a coun­try whose fu­ture pre­oc­cu­pies him al­most as much as it pre­oc­cu­pies me. In the wake of what seemed to have been a near-melt­down in the re­la­tion­ship between the United States and Is­rael, Obama talked about what he called his love for the Jew­ish state; his frus­tra­tions with it when it fails to live up to both Jew­ish and uni­ver­sal val­ues; and his hope that, one day soon, its lead­ers, in­clud­ing and es­pe­cially its prime min­is­ter, will come to un­der­stand Is­rael’s stark choices as he un­der­stands Is­rael’s stark choices. And, just as he did with Saudi Ar­a­bia, Obama is­sued a warn­ing to Is­rael: If it were un­will­ing to live up to its val­ues — in this case, he made spe­cif­ic men­tion of Net­an­yahu’s seem­ingly flawed un­der­stand­ing of the role Is­rael’s Ar­ab cit­izens play in its demo­crat­ic or­der — the con­sequences could be pro­found.

Obama told me that when Net­an­yahu as­ser­ted, late in his re­cent reelec­tion cam­paign, that “a Palestini­an state would not hap­pen un­der his watch, or [when] there was dis­cus­sion in which it ap­peared that Ar­ab-Is­raeli cit­izens were some­how por­trayed as an in­vad­ing force that might vote, and that this should be guarded against — this is con­trary to the very lan­guage of the Is­raeli De­clar­a­tion of In­de­pend­ence, which ex­pli­citly states that all people re­gard­less of race or re­li­gion are full par­ti­cipants in the demo­cracy. When something like that hap­pens, that has for­eign-policy con­sequences, and pre­cisely be­cause we’re so close to Is­rael, for us to simply stand there and say noth­ing would have meant that this of­fice, the Oval Of­fice, lost cred­ib­il­ity when it came to speak­ing out on these is­sues.”

Though Obama’s goal in giv­ing speeches like the one he is sched­uled to give at Adas Is­rael is to re­as­sure Jews of his love for Is­rael, he was adam­ant that he would not al­low the Jew­ish Right, and the Re­pub­lic­an Party, to auto­mat­ic­ally define cri­ti­cism of the Net­an­yahu gov­ern­ment’s policies as anti-Is­rael or anti-Semit­ic. Re­fer­ring to the most power­ful Jew­ish fig­ure in con­ser­vat­ive Amer­ica, Obama said that an “ar­gu­ment that I very much have been con­cerned about, and it has got­ten stronger over the last 10 years — it’s less overt than the ar­gu­ments that a Shel­don Ad­el­son makes, but in some ways can be just as per­ni­cious — is this ar­gu­ment that there should not be dis­agree­ments in pub­lic” between the U.S. and Is­rael. (Obama raised Ad­el­son’s name in part be­cause I had men­tioned his view of the pres­id­ent — Ad­el­son’s non-subtle cri­ti­cism is that Obama is go­ing to des­troy the Jew­ish state — earli­er in the in­ter­view.)

I star­ted the in­ter­view by ask­ing Obama if — des­pite his pre­vi­ous as­ser­tion that IS­IS, the Is­lam­ic State ter­ror group, was on the de­fens­ive — the United States was, in fact, los­ing the fight. When we spoke, the Ir­aqi city of Ra­madi, in An­bar Province, had just fallen to IS­IS; Palmyra, in Syr­ia, would fall the day after the in­ter­view.

(RE­LATED: 25 Pho­tos of Ir­an Be­fore the 1979 Re­volu­tion)

“No, I don’t think we’re los­ing,” he said. He went on to ex­plain, “There’s no doubt there was a tac­tic­al set­back, al­though Ra­madi had been vul­ner­able for a very long time, primar­ily be­cause these are not Ir­aqi se­cur­ity forces that we have trained or re­in­forced. “… [T]he train­ing of Ir­aqi se­cur­ity forces, the for­ti­fic­a­tions, the com­mand-and-con­trol sys­tems are not hap­pen­ing fast enough in An­bar, in the Sunni parts of the coun­try.” When I asked about the con­tinu­ing role Ir­aq plays in Amer­ic­an polit­ics — I was mak­ing a ref­er­ence to Jeb Bush’s re­cent Ir­aq-re­lated con­nip­tions — Obama pivoted from the ques­tion to make the ar­gu­ment that Re­pub­lic­ans still don’t grasp key les­sons about the Ir­aq in­va­sion ordered 12 years ago by Jeb’s broth­er.

“I know that there are some in Re­pub­lic­an quar­ters who have sug­ges­ted that I’ve over­learned the mis­take of Ir­aq, and that, in fact, just be­cause the 2003 in­va­sion did not go well doesn’t ar­gue that we shouldn’t go back in,” he said. “And one les­son that I think is im­port­ant to draw from what happened is that if the Ir­aqis them­selves are not will­ing or cap­able to ar­rive at the polit­ic­al ac­com­mod­a­tions ne­ces­sary to gov­ern, if they are not will­ing to fight for the se­cur­ity of their coun­try, we can­not do that for them.”

I turned the con­ver­sa­tion to Ir­an by quot­ing to him something he said in that 2012 in­ter­view (the same in­ter­view in which he pub­licly ruled out, for the first time, the idea of con­tain­ing a nuc­le­ar Ir­an, rather than stop­ping it from cross­ing the nuc­le­ar threshold).

This is what he told me three years ago: “It is al­most cer­tain that oth­er play­ers in the re­gion would feel it ne­ces­sary to get their own nuc­le­ar weapons if Ir­an got them.” I then noted vari­ous re­ports sug­gest­ing that, in re­ac­tion to a fi­nal deal that al­lows Ir­an to keep much of its nuc­le­ar in­fra­struc­ture in place, Saudi Ar­a­bia, and pos­sibly Tur­key and Egypt as well, would con­sider start­ing their own nuc­le­ar pro­grams. This, of course, would run com­pletely counter to Obama’s nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion goals.

I asked Obama if the Saudis had prom­ised him not to go down the nuc­le­ar path: “What are the con­sequences if oth­er coun­tries in the re­gion say, ‘Well you know what, they have 5,000 cent­ri­fuges? We’re go­ing to have 5,000 cent­ri­fuges.’”

Obama re­spon­ded by down­play­ing these me­dia re­ports, and then said, “There has been no in­dic­a­tion from the Saudis or any oth­er [Gulf Co­oper­a­tion Coun­cil] coun­tries that they have an in­ten­tion to pur­sue their own nuc­le­ar pro­gram. Part of the reas­on why they would not pur­sue their own nuc­le­ar pro­gram — as­sum­ing that we have been suc­cess­ful in pre­vent­ing Ir­an from con­tinu­ing down the path of ob­tain­ing a nuc­le­ar weapon — is that the pro­tec­tion that we provide as their part­ner is a far great­er de­terrent than they could ever hope to achieve by de­vel­op­ing their own nuc­le­ar stock­pile or try­ing to achieve break­out ca­pa­city when it comes to nuc­le­ar weapons.”

He went on to say that the Gulf coun­tries, in­clud­ing Saudi Ar­a­bia, ap­pear sat­is­fied that if the agree­ment works as ad­vert­ised, it will serve to keep Ir­an from be­com­ing a nuc­le­ar threat. “They un­der­stand that ul­ti­mately their own se­cur­ity and de­fense is much bet­ter served by work­ing with us,” Obama said.

(RE­LATED: On Ir­an, Obama Is Ig­nor­ing Pub­lic Opin­ion at His Own Per­il)

One of the reas­ons I worry about the Ir­an deal is that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion seems, on oc­ca­sion, to be overly op­tim­ist­ic about the ways in which Ir­an will de­ploy the money it will re­ceive when sanc­tions are re­lieved. This is a very com­mon fear among Ar­abs, and of course, among Is­rael­is. I quoted Jac­ob Lew, the Treas­ury sec­ret­ary, who said in a re­cent speech to the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Policy that “most of the money Ir­an re­ceives from sanc­tions re­lief will not be used to sup­port” its ter­ror­ist-sup­port­ing activ­it­ies. I ar­gued to Obama that this seemed like wish­ful think­ing.

Obama re­spon­ded at length (please read his full an­swer be­low), but he began this way: “I don’t think Jack or any­body in this ad­min­is­tra­tion said that no money will go to the mil­it­ary as a con­sequence of sanc­tions re­lief. The ques­tion is, if Ir­an has $150 bil­lion parked out­side the coun­try, does the IR­GC auto­mat­ic­ally get $150 bil­lion? Does that $150 bil­lion then trans­late by or­ders of mag­nitude in­to their ca­pa­city to pro­ject power throughout the re­gion? And that is what we con­test, be­cause when you look at the math, first of all they’re go­ing to have to de­liv­er on their ob­lig­a­tions un­der any agree­ment, which would take a cer­tain peri­od of time. Then there are the mech­an­ics of un­wind­ing the ex­ist­ing re­straints they have on get­ting that money, which takes a cer­tain amount of time. Then [Ir­a­ni­an Pres­id­ent] Rouh­ani and, by ex­ten­sion, the su­preme lead­er have made a series of com­mit­ments to im­prove the Ir­a­ni­an eco­nomy, and the ex­pect­a­tions are out­sized. You saw the re­ac­tion of people in the streets of Tehran after the sign­ing of the agree­ment. Their ex­pect­a­tions are that [the eco­nomy is] go­ing to im­prove sig­ni­fic­antly.” Obama also ar­gued that most of Ir­an’s ne­far­i­ous activ­it­ies — in Syr­ia, Ye­men, and Le­ban­on — are com­par­at­ively low-cost, and that they’ve been pur­su­ing these policies re­gard­less of sanc­tions.

I also raised an­oth­er con­cern — one that the pres­id­ent didn’t seem to fully share. It’s been my be­lief that it is dif­fi­cult to ne­go­ti­ate with parties that are cap­tive to a con­spir­at­ori­al anti-Semit­ic world­view not be­cause they hold of­fens­ive views, but be­cause they hold ri­dicu­lous views. As Wal­ter Rus­sell Mead and oth­ers have ex­plained, anti-Semites have dif­fi­culty un­der­stand­ing the world as it ac­tu­ally works, and don’t com­pre­hend cause-and-ef­fect in polit­ics and eco­nom­ics. Though I would like to see a sol­id nuc­le­ar deal (it is prefer­able to the al­tern­at­ives), I don’t be­lieve that the re­gime with which Obama is ne­go­ti­at­ing can be coun­ted on to be en­tirely ra­tion­al.

Obama re­spon­ded to this the­ory by say­ing the fol­low­ing: “Well, the fact that you are anti-Semit­ic, or ra­cist, doesn’t pre­clude you from be­ing in­ter­ested in sur­viv­al. It doesn’t pre­clude you from be­ing ra­tion­al about the need to keep your eco­nomy afloat; it doesn’t pre­clude you from mak­ing stra­tegic de­cisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the su­preme lead­er is anti-Semit­ic doesn’t mean that this over­rides all of his oth­er con­sid­er­a­tions. You know, if you look at the his­tory of anti-Semit­ism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European lead­ers — and there were deep strains of anti-Semit­ism in this coun­try — “

(The U.S.-Is­rael ‘Spe­cial Re­la­tion­ship’: A Photo Al­bum)

I in­ter­jec­ted by sug­gest­ing that anti-Semit­ic European lead­ers made ir­ra­tion­al de­cisions, to which Obama re­spon­ded, “They may make ir­ra­tion­al de­cisions with re­spect to dis­crim­in­a­tion, with re­spect to try­ing to use anti-Semit­ic rhet­or­ic as an or­gan­iz­ing tool. At the mar­gins, where the costs are low, they may pur­sue policies based on hatred as op­posed to self-in­terest. But the costs here are not low, and what we’ve been very clear [about] to the Ir­a­ni­an re­gime over the past six years is that we will con­tin­ue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semit­ism, but also for whatever ex­pan­sion­ist am­bi­tions they may have. That’s what the sanc­tions rep­res­ent. That’s what the mil­it­ary op­tion I’ve made clear I pre­serve rep­res­ents. And so I think it is not at all con­tra­dict­ory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semit­ism in the core re­gime, but that they also are in­ter­ested in main­tain­ing power, hav­ing some semb­lance of le­git­im­acy in­side their own coun­try, which re­quires that they get them­selves out of what is a deep eco­nom­ic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then will­ing and pre­pared po­ten­tially to strike an agree­ment on their nuc­le­ar pro­gram.”

On Is­rael, Obama en­dorsed, in mov­ing terms, the un­der­ly­ing ra­tionale for the ex­ist­ence of a Jew­ish state, mak­ing a dir­ect con­nec­tion between the battle for Afric­an-Amer­ic­an equal­ity and the fight for Jew­ish na­tion­al equal­ity. “There’s a dir­ect line between sup­port­ing the right of the Jew­ish people to have a home­land and to feel safe and free of dis­crim­in­a­tion and per­se­cu­tion, and the right of Afric­an Amer­ic­ans to vote and have equal pro­tec­tion un­der the law,” he said. “These things are in­di­vis­ible in my mind.”

In dis­cuss­ing the re­sur­gence of anti-Semit­ism in Europe, he was quite clear in his con­dem­na­tion of what has be­come a com­mon trope — that anti-Zion­ism, the be­lief that the Jews should not have a state of their own in at least part of their an­ces­tral home­land, is un­re­lated to anti-Jew­ish hos­til­ity. He gave me his own para­met­ers for judging wheth­er a per­son is simply crit­ic­al of cer­tain Is­raeli policies or is har­bor­ing more pre­ju­di­cial feel­ings.

“Do you think that Is­rael has a right to ex­ist as a home­land for the Jew­ish people, and are you aware of the par­tic­u­lar cir­cum­stances of Jew­ish his­tory that might prompt that need and de­sire?” he said, in de­fin­ing the ques­tions that he be­lieves should be asked. “And if your an­swer is no, if your no­tion is some­how that that his­tory doesn’t mat­ter, then that’s a prob­lem, in my mind. If, on the oth­er hand, you ac­know­ledge the just­ness of the Jew­ish home­land, you ac­know­ledge the act­ive pres­ence of anti-Semit­ism — that it’s not just something in the past, but it is cur­rent — if you ac­know­ledge that there are people and na­tions that, if con­veni­ent, would do the Jew­ish people harm be­cause of a warped ideo­logy. If you ac­know­ledge those things, then you should be able to align your­self with Is­rael where its se­cur­ity is at stake, you should be able to align your­self with Is­rael when it comes to mak­ing sure that it is not held to a double stand­ard in in­ter­na­tion­al fora, you should align your­self with Is­rael when it comes to mak­ing sure that it is not isol­ated.”

“I don’t think we’re los­ing [against IS­IS]. … We’re eight months in­to what we’ve al­ways an­ti­cip­ated to be a multi-year cam­paign.”

Though he tried to frame his con­flict with Net­an­yahu in im­per­son­al terms, he made two things clear. One is that he would not stop cri­ti­ciz­ing Is­rael when he be­lieved it did not live up to its own found­ing val­ues. And two — and this is my in­ter­pret­a­tion of his world­view — he holds Is­rael to a high­er stand­ard than he does oth­er coun­tries be­cause of the re­spect he has for Jew­ish val­ues and Jew­ish teach­ings, and for the role Jew­ish ment­ors and teach­ers have played in his life. After equat­ing the cre­ation of Is­rael with the Amer­ic­an civil-rights move­ment, he went on to say this: “What is also true, by ex­ten­sion, is that I have to show that same kind of re­gard to oth­er peoples. And I think it is true to Is­rael’s tra­di­tions and its val­ues — its found­ing prin­ciples — that it has to care about “… Palestini­an kids. And when I was in Jer­u­s­alem and I spoke, the biggest ap­plause that I got was when I spoke about those kids I had vis­ited in Ramal­lah, and I said to an Is­raeli audi­ence that it is pro­foundly Jew­ish, it is pro­foundly con­sist­ent with Is­rael’s tra­di­tions to care about them. And they agreed. So if that’s not trans­lated in­to policy — if we’re not will­ing to take risks on be­half of those val­ues — then those prin­ciples be­come empty words, and in fact, in my mind, it makes it more dif­fi­cult for us to con­tin­ue to pro­mote those val­ues when it comes to pro­tect­ing Is­rael in­ter­na­tion­ally.”

As I was listen­ing to him speak about Is­rael and its val­ues (we did not dis­cuss the re­cent con­tro­versy over a now-shelved Is­raeli De­fense Min­istry plan to se­greg­ate cer­tain West Bank bus lines, but is­sues like this in­formed the con­ver­sa­tion), I felt as if I had par­ti­cip­ated in dis­cus­sions like this dozens of times, but mainly with rab­bis. I have prob­ably had 50 dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tions with 50 dif­fer­ent rab­bis over the past couple of years — in­clud­ing the rabbi of my syn­agogue, Gil Stein­lauf, who is host­ing Obama on Fri­day — about the chal­lenges they face in talk­ing about cur­rent Is­raeli real­ity.

Many Re­form and Con­ser­vat­ive rab­bis (and some Or­tho­dox rab­bis as well), find them­selves an­guish­ing — usu­ally be­fore the High Hol­i­days — about how to present Is­rael’s com­plex and some­times un­pal­at­able real­ity to their con­greg­ants. (I refer to this ser­mon gen­er­ic­ally as the “How to Love a Dif­fi­cult Is­rael” ser­mon.) Obama, when he talks about Is­rael, of­ten sounds to me like one of these rab­bis:

“My hope is that over time [the] de­bate gets back on a path where there’s some semb­lance of hope and not simply fear, be­cause it feels to me as if, if all we are talk­ing about is based from fear,” he said. “Over the short term that may seem wise — cyn­icism al­ways seems a little wise — but it may lead Is­rael down a path in which it’s very hard to pro­tect it­self [as] a Jew­ish-ma­jor­ity demo­cracy. And I care deeply about pre­serving that Jew­ish demo­cracy, be­cause when I think about how I came to know Is­rael, it was based on im­ages of “… kib­butzim and Moshe Day­an, and Golda Meir, and the sense that not only are we cre­at­ing a safe Jew­ish home­land, but also we are re­mak­ing the world. We’re re­pair­ing it. We are go­ing to do it the right way. We are go­ing to make sure that the les­sons we’ve learned from our hard­ships and our per­se­cu­tions are ap­plied to how we gov­ern and how we treat oth­ers. And it goes back to the val­ues ques­tions that we talked about earli­er — those are the val­ues that helped to nur­ture me and my polit­ic­al be­liefs.”

(RE­LATED: Why the Obama Ad­min­is­tra­tion Thinks It’s Beat­ing IS­IS)

I sent these com­ments on Wed­nes­day to Rabbi Stein­lauf to see if he dis­agreed with my be­lief that Obama, when he talks about Is­rael, sounds like a rabbi in the pro­gress­ive Zion­ist tra­di­tion. Stein­lauf wrote back: “Pres­id­ent Obama shares the same yearn­ing for a se­cure peace in Is­rael that I and so many of my rab­bin­ic col­leagues have. While he doesn’t speak as a Jew, his pro­gress­ive val­ues flow dir­ectly out of the core mes­sages of Torah, and so he is deeply in touch with the heart and spir­it of the Jew­ish people.”

I have to ima­gine that com­ments like Stein­lauf’s may be un­der­stood by people such as Shel­don Ad­el­son and Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu as hope­lessly na­ive. But this is where much of the Jew­ish com­munity is today: nervous about Ir­an, nervous about Obama’s re­sponse to Ir­an, nervous about Net­an­yahu’s re­sponse to real­ity, nervous about the tox­ic mar­riage between Obama and Net­an­yahu, and nervous that, once again, there is no mar­gin in the world for Jew­ish er­ror.

The tran­script of my con­ver­sa­tion with Pres­id­ent Obama, in­clud­ing the con­ten­tious bits, is be­low. I’ve ed­ited some of my bag­gi­er ques­tions for clar­ity and con­cision. The pres­id­ent’s an­swers are re­pro­duced in full.

The Middle East In­ter­view

  1. The War Against IS­IS in Ir­aq and Syr­ia
  2. The Nuc­le­ar Deal With Ir­an
  3. The Pres­id­ent’s Re­la­tion­ship With Is­rael and the Jew­ish People

The War Against IS­IS in Ir­aq and Syr­ia

Jef­frey Gold­berg: You’ve ar­gued that IS­IS has been on the de­fens­ive. But Ra­madi just fell. Are we ac­tu­ally los­ing this war, or would you not go that far?

Pres­id­ent Barack Obama: No, I don’t think we’re los­ing, and I just talked to our CENT­COM com­mand­ers and the folks on the ground. There’s no doubt there was a tac­tic­al set­back, al­though Ra­madi had been vul­ner­able for a very long time, primar­ily be­cause these are not Ir­aqi se­cur­ity forces that we have trained or re­in­forced. They have been there es­sen­tially for a year without suf­fi­cient re­in­force­ments, and the num­ber of ISIL that have come in­to the city now are re­l­at­ively small com­pared to what happened in [the Ir­aqi city of] Mo­sul. But it is in­dic­at­ive that the train­ing of Ir­aqi se­cur­ity forces, the for­ti­fic­a­tions, the com­mand-and-con­trol sys­tems are not hap­pen­ing fast enough in An­bar, in the Sunni parts of the coun­try. You’ve seen ac­tu­ally sig­ni­fic­ant pro­gress in the north, and those areas where the Pesh­merga [Kur­d­ish forces] are par­ti­cip­at­ing. Bagh­dad is con­sol­id­ated. Those pre­dom­in­antly Shia areas, you’re not see­ing any for­ward mo­mentum by ISIL, and ISIL has been sig­ni­fic­antly de­graded across the coun­try. But —

Gold­berg: You’ve got to worry about the Ir­aqi forces —

(RE­LATED: Un­der­st­sand­ing the Rise of IS­IS)

Obama: I’m get­ting to that, Jeff. You asked me a ques­tion, and there’s no doubt that in the Sunni areas, we’re go­ing to have to ramp up not just train­ing, but also com­mit­ment, and we bet­ter get Sunni tribes more ac­tiv­ated than they cur­rently have been. So it is a source of con­cern. We’re eight months in­to what we’ve al­ways an­ti­cip­ated to be a mul­ti­year cam­paign, and I think [Ir­aqi] Prime Min­is­ter Abadi re­cog­nizes many of these prob­lems, but they’re go­ing to have to be ad­dressed.

Gold­berg: Stay on Ir­aq. There’s this in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion go­ing on in Re­pub­lic­an circles right now, de­bat­ing a ques­tion that you answered for your­self 13 years ago, about wheth­er it was right or wrong to go in­to Ir­aq. What is this con­ver­sa­tion ac­tu­ally about? I’m also won­der­ing if you think this is the wrong con­ver­sa­tion to have in the fol­low­ing sense: You’re un­der vir­tu­ally no pres­sure — cor­rect me if I’m wrong — but you’re un­der vir­tu­ally no pres­sure do­mest­ic­ally to get more deeply in­volved in the Middle East. That seems to be one of the down­stream con­sequences of the Ir­aq in­va­sion 12 years ago.

Obama: As you said, I’m very clear on the les­sons of Ir­aq. I think it was a mis­take for us to go in in the first place, des­pite the in­cred­ible ef­forts that were made by our men and wo­men in uni­form. Des­pite that er­ror, those sac­ri­fices al­lowed the Ir­aqis to take back their coun­try. That op­por­tun­ity was squandered by Prime Min­is­ter Ma­liki and the un­will­ing­ness to reach out ef­fect­ively to the Sunni and Kur­d­ish pop­u­la­tions.

But today the ques­tion is not wheth­er or not we are send­ing in con­tin­gents of U.S. ground troops. Today the ques­tion is: How do we find ef­fect­ive part­ners to gov­ern in those parts of Ir­aq that right now are un­gov­ern­able and ef­fect­ively de­feat ISIL, not just in Ir­aq but in Syr­ia?

(RE­LATED: Obama Gives Rare Glimpse In­to His Post-Pres­id­ency Plans)

It is im­port­ant to have a clear idea of the past be­cause we don’t want to re­peat mis­takes. I know that there are some in Re­pub­lic­an quar­ters who have sug­ges­ted that I’ve over­learned the mis­take of Ir­aq, and that, in fact, just be­cause the 2003 in­va­sion did not go well doesn’t ar­gue that we shouldn’t go back in. And one les­son that I think is im­port­ant to draw from what happened is that if the Ir­aqis them­selves are not will­ing or cap­able to ar­rive at the polit­ic­al ac­com­mod­a­tions ne­ces­sary to gov­ern, if they are not will­ing to fight for the se­cur­ity of their coun­try, we can­not do that for them. We can be ef­fect­ive al­lies. I think Prime Min­is­ter Abadi is sin­cere and com­mit­ted to an in­clus­ive Ir­aqi state, and I will con­tin­ue to or­der our mil­it­ary to provide the Ir­aqi se­cur­ity forces all as­sist­ance that they need in or­der to se­cure their coun­try, and I’ll provide dip­lo­mat­ic and eco­nom­ic as­sist­ance that’s ne­ces­sary for them to sta­bil­ize.

But we can’t do it for them, and one of the cent­ral flaws I think of the de­cision back in 2003 was the sense that if we simply went in and de­posed a dic­tat­or, or simply went in and cleared out the bad guys, that some­how peace and prosper­ity would auto­mat­ic­ally emerge, and that les­son we should have learned a long time ago. And so the really im­port­ant ques­tion mov­ing for­ward is: How do we find ef­fect­ive part­ners — not just in Ir­aq, but in Syr­ia, and in Ye­men, and in Libya — that we can work with, and how do we cre­ate the in­ter­na­tion­al co­ali­tion and at­mo­sphere in which people across sec­tari­an lines are will­ing to com­prom­ise and are will­ing to work to­geth­er in or­der to provide the next gen­er­a­tion a fight­ing chance for a bet­ter fu­ture?

“If [the Ir­aqis] are not will­ing to fight for the se­cur­ity of their coun­try, we can­not do that for them.”

The Nuc­le­ar Deal With Ir­an

Gold­berg: Let me do two or three on Ir­an, and then we’ll move to Is­rael and Jews. All of the fun sub­jects. By the way, you’re com­ing to my syn­agogue to speak on Fri­day.

Obama: I’m very much look­ing for­ward to it.

Gold­berg: This is the biggest thing that’s happened there since the last Gold­berg bar mitzvah.

Obama: [Laughs]

Gold­berg: So in 2012 you told me, when we were talk­ing about Ir­an, “It is al­most cer­tain that oth­er play­ers in the re­gion would feel it ne­ces­sary to get their own nuc­le­ar weapons if Ir­an got them.” Now we’re in this kind of weird situ­ation in which there’s talk that Saudi Ar­a­bia, maybe Tur­key, maybe Egypt would go build nuc­le­ar in­fra­struc­tures come the fi­nal­iz­a­tion of this deal to match the in­fra­struc­ture that your deal is go­ing to leave in place in Ir­an. So my ques­tion to you is: Have you asked the Saudis not to go down any kind of nuc­le­ar path? What have they told you about this? And what are the con­sequences if oth­er coun­tries in the re­gion say, “Well you know what, they have 5,000 cent­ri­fuges? We’re go­ing to have 5,000 cent­ri­fuges.”

Obama: There’s been talk in the me­dia, un­sourced —

Gold­berg: Well, [Saudi Ar­a­bia’s] Prince Turki said it pub­licly

Obama: Well, he’s not in the gov­ern­ment. There has been no in­dic­a­tion from the Saudis or any oth­er [Gulf Co­oper­a­tion Coun­cil] coun­tries that they have an in­ten­tion to pur­sue their own nuc­le­ar pro­gram. Part of the reas­on why they would not pur­sue their own nuc­le­ar pro­gram — as­sum­ing that we have been suc­cess­ful in pre­vent­ing Ir­an from con­tinu­ing down the path of ob­tain­ing a nuc­le­ar weapon — is that the pro­tec­tion that we provide as their part­ner is a far great­er de­terrent than they could ever hope to achieve by de­vel­op­ing their own nuc­le­ar stock­pile or try­ing to achieve break­out ca­pa­city when it comes to nuc­le­ar weapons, and they un­der­stand that.

(RE­LATED: U.S. Tech Com­pan­ies and In­vestors Look to Gain From Ir­an Deal)

What we saw at the GCC sum­mit was, I think, le­git­im­ate skep­ti­cism and con­cern, not simply about the Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar pro­gram it­self but also the con­sequences of sanc­tions com­ing down. We walked through the four path­ways that would be shut off in any agree­ment that I would be sign­ing off on. Tech­nic­ally, we showed them how it would be ac­com­plished — what the veri­fic­a­tion mech­an­isms will be, how the U.N. snap­back pro­vi­sions [for sanc­tions] might work. They were sat­is­fied that if in fact the agree­ment meant the bench­marks that we’ve set forth, that it would pre­vent Ir­an from get­ting a nuc­le­ar weapon, and giv­en that, they un­der­stand that ul­ti­mately their own se­cur­ity and de­fense is much bet­ter served by work­ing with us. Their cov­ert — pre­sum­ably — pur­suit of a nuc­le­ar pro­gram would greatly strain the re­la­tion­ship they’ve got with the United States.

Gold­berg: Stay with Ir­an for one more mo­ment. I just want you to help me square something. So you’ve ar­gued, quite elo­quently in fact, that the Ir­a­ni­an re­gime has at its highest levels been in­fec­ted by a kind of anti-Semit­ic world­view. You talked about that with Tom [Fried­man]. “Venom­ous anti-Semit­ism” I think is the term that you used. You have ar­gued — not that it even needs ar­guing — but you’ve ar­gued that people who sub­scribe to an anti-Semit­ic world­view, who ex­plain the world through the prism of anti-Semit­ic ideo­logy, are not ra­tion­al, are not built for suc­cess, are not groun­ded in a real­ity that you and I might un­der­stand. And yet, you’ve also ar­gued that the re­gime in Tehran — a re­gime you’ve de­scribed as anti-Semit­ic, among oth­er prob­lems that they have — is prac­tic­al, and is re­spons­ive to in­cent­ive, and shows signs of ra­tion­al­ity. So I don’t un­der­stand how these things fit to­geth­er in your mind.

Obama: Well, the fact that you are anti-Semit­ic, or ra­cist, doesn’t pre­clude you from be­ing in­ter­ested in sur­viv­al. It doesn’t pre­clude you from be­ing ra­tion­al about the need to keep your eco­nomy afloat; it doesn’t pre­clude you from mak­ing stra­tegic de­cisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the su­preme lead­er is anti-Semit­ic doesn’t mean that this over­rides all of his oth­er con­sid­er­a­tions. You know, if you look at the his­tory of anti-Semit­ism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European lead­ers — and there were deep strains of anti-Semit­ism in this coun­try —

Gold­berg: And they make ir­ra­tion­al de­cisions —

Obama: They may make ir­ra­tion­al de­cisions with re­spect to dis­crim­in­a­tion, with re­spect to try­ing to use anti-Semit­ic rhet­or­ic as an or­gan­iz­ing tool. At the mar­gins, where the costs are low, they may pur­sue policies based on hatred as op­posed to self-in­terest. But the costs here are not low, and what we’ve been very clear [about] to the Ir­a­ni­an re­gime over the past six years is that we will con­tin­ue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semit­ism, but also for whatever ex­pan­sion­ist am­bi­tions they may have. That’s what the sanc­tions rep­res­ent. That’s what the mil­it­ary op­tion I’ve made clear I pre­serve rep­res­ents. And so I think it is not at all con­tra­dict­ory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semit­ism in the core re­gime, but that they also are in­ter­ested in main­tain­ing power, hav­ing some semb­lance of le­git­im­acy in­side their own coun­try, which re­quires that they get them­selves out of what is a deep eco­nom­ic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then will­ing and pre­pared po­ten­tially to strike an agree­ment on their nuc­le­ar pro­gram.

(RE­LATED: Di­vided on Ir­an, Demo­crats Unite Against GOP Let­ter)

Gold­berg: One of the oth­er is­sues that’s troub­ling about this is — and I’m quot­ing [Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary] Jack Lew here, who said a couple of weeks ago at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute when talk­ing about Ir­an’s vari­ous ne­far­i­ous activ­it­ies, he said, “Most of the money Ir­an re­ceives from sanc­tions re­lief will not be used to sup­port those activ­it­ies.” To me that sounds like a little bit of wish­ful think­ing — that [Ir­an’s Re­volu­tion­ary Guard Corps] is go­ing to want to get paid, Hezbol­lah is go­ing to see, among oth­er groups, might see a little bit of a wind­fall from these bil­lions of dol­lars that might pour in. I’m not as­sum­ing something com­pletely in the oth­er dir­ec­tion either, but I just don’t know where your con­fid­ence comes from.

Obama: Well, I don’t think Jack or any­body in this ad­min­is­tra­tion said that no money will go to the mil­it­ary as a con­sequence of sanc­tions re­lief. The ques­tion is, if Ir­an has $150 bil­lion parked out­side the coun­try, does the IR­GC auto­mat­ic­ally get $150 bil­lion? Does that $150 bil­lion then trans­late by or­ders of mag­nitude in­to their ca­pa­city to pro­ject power throughout the re­gion? And that is what we con­test, be­cause when you look at the math, first of all they’re go­ing to have to de­liv­er on their ob­lig­a­tions un­der any agree­ment, which would take a cer­tain peri­od of time. Then there are the mech­an­ics of un­wind­ing the ex­ist­ing re­straints they have on get­ting that money, which takes a cer­tain amount of time. Then [Ir­a­ni­an Pres­id­ent] Rouh­ani and, by ex­ten­sion, the su­preme lead­er have made a series of com­mit­ments to im­prove the Ir­a­ni­an eco­nomy, and the ex­pect­a­tions are out­sized. You saw the re­ac­tion of people in the streets of Tehran after the sign­ing of the agree­ment. Their ex­pect­a­tions are that [the eco­nomy is] go­ing to im­prove sig­ni­fic­antly. You have Ir­a­ni­an elites who are champ­ing at the bit to start mov­ing busi­ness and get­ting out from un­der the re­straints that they’ve been un­der.

And what is also true is that the IR­GC right now, pre­cisely be­cause of sanc­tions, in some ways are able to ex­ploit ex­ist­ing re­stric­tions to have a mono­poly on what comes in and out of the coun­try, and they’ve got their own rev­en­ue sources that they’ve been able to de­vel­op, some of which may ac­tu­ally lessen as a con­sequence of sanc­tions re­lief. So I don’t think this is a sci­ence, and this is an is­sue that came up with the GCC coun­tries dur­ing the sum­mit. The point we simply make to them is: It is not a math­em­at­ic­al for­mula whereby [Ir­a­ni­an lead­ers] get a cer­tain amount of sanc­tions re­lief and auto­mat­ic­ally they’re caus­ing more prob­lems in the neigh­bor­hood. What makes that par­tic­u­larly im­port­ant is, in the dis­cus­sion with the GCC coun­tries, we poin­ted out that the biggest vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies that they have to Ir­an, and the most ef­fect­ive destabil­iz­ing activ­it­ies of the IR­GC and [Ir­an’s] Quds Force are ac­tu­ally low-cost. They are not a threat to the re­gion be­cause of their hard­ware. Bal­list­ic mis­siles are a con­cern. They have a mis­sile pro­gram. We have to think about mis­sile-de­fense sys­tems and how those are in­teg­rated and co­ordin­ated. But the big prob­lems we have are weapons go­ing in to Hezbol­lah, or them send­ing agents in­to Ye­men, or oth­er low-tech asym­met­ric threats that they’re very ef­fect­ive at ex­ploit­ing, which they’re already do­ing — they’ve been do­ing des­pite sanc­tions. They will con­tin­ue to do [this] un­less we are de­vel­op­ing great­er ca­pa­city to pre­vent them from do­ing those things, which is part of what our dis­cus­sion was in terms of the se­cur­ity as­sur­ances with the GCC coun­tries.

(RE­LATED: On Ir­an, Obama Is Ig­nor­ing Pub­lic Opin­ion at His Own Per­il)

You know, if you look at a situ­ation like Ye­men, part of the prob­lem is the chron­ic, en­dem­ic weak­ness in a state like that, and the in­stabil­ity that Ir­an then seeks to ex­ploit. If you had GCC coun­tries who were more cap­able of mari­time in­ter­dic­tion, ef­fect­ive in­tel­li­gence, cut­ting off fin­an­cing sources, and are more ef­fect­ive in terms of work­ing and train­ing with al­lied forces in a place like Ye­men, so that Houthis can’t just march in­to Sana’a, well, if all those things are be­ing done, Ir­an hav­ing some ad­di­tion­al dol­lars from sanc­tions re­lief is not go­ing to over­ride those im­prove­ments and cap­ab­il­it­ies, and that’s really where we have to fo­cus. Like­wise with re­spect to Hezbol­lah. Hezbol­lah has a cer­tain num­ber of fight­ers who are hardened and ef­fect­ive. If Ir­an has some ad­di­tion­al re­sources, then per­haps they’re less strained in try­ing to make payroll when it comes to Hezbol­lah, but it’s not as if they can sud­denly train up and suc­cess­fully de­ploy 10 times the num­ber of Hezbol­lah fight­ers that are cur­rently in Syr­ia. That’s not something that they have auto­mat­ic ca­pa­city to do. The reas­on that Hezbol­lah is ef­fect­ive is be­cause they’ve got a core group of hardened folks that they’ve de­veloped over the last 20-30 years, and —

Gold­berg: You could buy more rock­ets and put them in south Le­ban­on.

Obama: Well, and the is­sue, though, with re­spect to rock­ets in south Le­ban­on is not wheth­er [Ir­an has] enough money to do so. They’ve shown a com­mit­ment to do­ing that even when their eco­nomy is in the tank. The is­sue there is: Are we able to in­ter­dict those ship­ments more ef­fect­ively than we do right now? And that’s the kind of thing that we have to con­tin­ue to part­ner with Is­rael and oth­er coun­tries to stop.

The Pres­id­ent’s Re­la­tion­ship With Is­rael and the Jew­ish People

Gold­berg: Let me go to these ques­tions re­lated to Is­rael and your re­la­tion­ship to the Amer­ic­an Jew­ish com­munity. So a num­ber of years ago, I made the case that you’re Amer­ica’s first Jew­ish pres­id­ent. And I made that as­sess­ment based on the depth of your en­coun­ters with Jews: the num­ber of Jew­ish ment­ors you’ve had — Ab­n­er Mik­va, New­ton Minow, and so on — teach­ers, law pro­fess­ors, fel­low com­munity or­gan­izers, Jew­ish lit­er­at­ure, Jew­ish thought, and of course your early polit­ic­al base in Chica­go. There are ob­vi­ously Jews in Amer­ica who are im­mune to the charms of this ar­gu­ment, led by Shel­don Ad­el­son but not only him.

(RE­LATED: The Lim­its of the Ru­bio-Cruz Ir­an Re­bel­lion)

Here’s a quote from Ad­el­son which al­ways struck me as cent­ral to the way your Jew­ish op­pon­ents un­der­stand you: “All the steps he’s taken” — “he” mean­ing you — “against the State of Is­rael are li­able to bring about the de­struc­tion of the state.”

I have my own the­or­ies about why there’s this bi­furc­a­tion in the Amer­ic­an Jew­ish com­munity, and we’ve dis­cussed this in past in­ter­views, but what is go­ing on? Is this the byproduct of well-in­ten­tioned anxi­ety about Ir­an, about the ex­plos­ive growth of anti-Semit­ism in Europe? Something else?

Obama: Let me de­per­son­al­ize it a little bit. First of all, there’s not really a bi­furc­a­tion with re­spect to the at­ti­tudes of the Jew­ish-Amer­ic­an com­munity about me. I con­sist­ently re­ceived over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity sup­port from the Jew­ish com­munity, and even after all the pub­li­city around the re­cent dif­fer­ences that I’ve had with Prime Min­is­ter Net­an­yahu, the ma­jor­ity of the Jew­ish-Amer­ic­an com­munity still sup­ports me, and sup­ports me strongly.

Gold­berg: It was 70 per­cent in the last elec­tion.

(RE­LATED: Ted Cruz Says He’d Sign the Ir­an Let­ter Again ‘In Large Print’)

Obama: Sev­enty per­cent is pretty good. I think that there are a lot of cross­cur­rents that are go­ing on right now. There is no doubt that the en­vir­on­ment world­wide is scary for a lot of Jew­ish fam­il­ies. You’ve men­tioned some of those trends. You have a Middle East that is tur­bu­lent and chaot­ic, and where ex­trem­ists seem to be full of en­thu­si­asm and mo­mentum. You have Europe, where, as you’ve very ef­fect­ively chron­icled, there is an emer­gence of a more overt and dan­ger­ous anti-Semit­ism. And so part of the con­cern in the Jew­ish com­munity is that, only a gen­er­a­tion re­moved from the Holo­caust, it seems that anti-Semit­ic rhet­or­ic and anti-Is­raeli rhet­or­ic is on the rise. And that will make people fear­ful.

What I also think is that there has been a very con­cer­ted ef­fort on the part of some polit­ic­al forces to equate be­ing pro-Is­rael, and hence be­ing sup­port­ive of the Jew­ish people, with a rub­ber stamp on a par­tic­u­lar set of policies com­ing out of the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment. So if you are ques­tion­ing set­tle­ment policy, that in­dic­ates you’re anti-Is­raeli, or that in­dic­ates you’re anti-Jew­ish. If you ex­press com­pas­sion or em­pathy to­wards Palestini­an youth, who are deal­ing with check­points or re­stric­tions on their abil­ity to travel, then you are sus­pect in terms of your sup­port of Is­rael. If you are will­ing to get in­to pub­lic dis­agree­ments with the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment, then the no­tion is that you are be­ing anti-Is­rael, and by ex­ten­sion, anti-Jew­ish. I com­pletely re­ject that.

Gold­berg: Is that a cyn­ic­al ploy by some­body?

Obama: Well, I won’t ascribe motives to them. I think that some of those folks may sin­cerely be­lieve that the Jew­ish state is con­sist­ently em­battled, that it is in a very bad neigh­bor­hood and either you’re with them or against them, and end of story. And they may sin­cerely be­lieve it. My re­sponse to them is that, pre­cisely be­cause I care so deeply about the State of Is­rael, pre­cisely be­cause I care so much about the Jew­ish people, I feel ob­liged to speak hon­estly and truth­fully about what I think will be most likely to lead to long-term se­cur­ity, and will best po­s­i­tion us to con­tin­ue to com­bat anti-Semit­ism, and I make no apo­lo­gies for that pre­cisely be­cause I am se­cure and con­fid­ent about how deeply I care about Is­rael and the Jew­ish people.

(RE­LATED: Ir­an Talks Could Win John Kerry the No­bel Peace Prize)

I said in a pre­vi­ous in­ter­view and I meant it: I think it would be a mor­al fail­ing for me as pres­id­ent of the United States, and a mor­al fail­ing for Amer­ica, and a mor­al fail­ing for the world, if we did not pro­tect Is­rael and stand up for its right to ex­ist, be­cause that would neg­ate not just the his­tory of the 20th cen­tury, it would neg­ate the his­tory of the past mil­len­ni­um. And it would vi­ol­ate what we have learned, what hu­man­ity should have learned, over that past mil­len­ni­um, which is that when you show in­tol­er­ance and when you are per­se­cut­ing minor­it­ies and when you are ob­jec­ti­fy­ing them and mak­ing them the Oth­er, you are des­troy­ing something in your­self, and the world goes in­to a tailspin.

And so, to me, be­ing pro-Is­rael and pro-Jew­ish is part and par­cel with the val­ues that I’ve been fight­ing for since I was polit­ic­ally con­scious and star­ted get­ting in­volved in polit­ics. There’s a dir­ect line between sup­port­ing the right of the Jew­ish people to have a home­land and to feel safe and free of dis­crim­in­a­tion and per­se­cu­tion, and the right of Afric­an Amer­ic­ans to vote and have equal pro­tec­tion un­der the law. These things are in­di­vis­ible in my mind. But what is also true, by ex­ten­sion, is that I have to show that same kind of re­gard to oth­er peoples. And I think it is true to Is­rael’s tra­di­tions and its val­ues — its found­ing prin­ciples — that it has to care about those Palestini­an kids. And when I was in Jer­u­s­alem and I spoke, the biggest ap­plause that I got was when I spoke about those kids I had vis­ited in Ramal­lah, and I said to a Is­raeli audi­ence that it is pro­foundly Jew­ish, it is pro­foundly con­sist­ent with Is­rael’s tra­di­tions to care about them. And they agreed. So if that’s not trans­lated in­to policy — if we’re not will­ing to take risks on be­half of those val­ues — then those prin­ciples be­come empty words, and in fact, in my mind, it makes it more dif­fi­cult for us to con­tin­ue to pro­mote those val­ues when it comes to pro­tect­ing Is­rael in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Gold­berg: You’re not known as an overly emotive politi­cian, but there was a peri­od in which the re­la­tion­ship between you and the prime min­is­ter, and there­fore the U.S. gov­ern­ment and the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment, seemed very fraught and very emo­tion­al. There was more pub­lic cri­ti­cism com­ing out of this ad­min­is­tra­tion dir­ec­ted at Is­rael than any oth­er ally, and maybe at some ad­versar­ies —

Obama: Yeah, and I have to say, Jeff, I com­pletely dis­agree with that as­sess­ment, and I know you wrote that. And I ob­jec­ted to it. I mean, the fact of the mat­ter is that there was a very par­tic­u­lar cir­cum­stance in which we had a policy dif­fer­ence that shouldn’t be papered over be­cause it goes to the nature of the friend­ship between the United States and Is­rael, and how we deal gov­ern­ment to gov­ern­ment, and how we sort through those is­sues.

(RE­LATED: Net­an­yahu to Con­gress: ‘We Are Bet­ter Off’ Without Emer­ging U.S. Deal With Ir­an)

Now, a couple of things that I’d say at the out­set. In every pub­lic pro­nounce­ment I’ve made, I said that the bed­rock se­cur­ity re­la­tion­ships between our two coun­tries — these are sac­rosanct. Mil­it­ary co­oper­a­tion, in­tel­li­gence co­oper­a­tion — none of that has been af­fected. I have main­tained, and I think I can show that no U.S. pres­id­ent has been more force­ful in mak­ing sure that we help Is­rael pro­tect it­self, and even some of my crit­ics in Is­rael have ac­know­ledged as much. I said that none of this should im­pact the core stra­tegic re­la­tion­ship that ex­ists between the United States and Is­rael, or the people-to-people re­la­tions that are so deep that they tran­scend any par­tic­u­lar pres­id­ent or prime min­is­ter and will con­tin­ue un­til the end of time.

But what I did say is that when, go­ing in­to an elec­tion, Prime Min­is­ter Net­an­yahu said a Palestini­an state would not hap­pen un­der his watch, or there [was] dis­cus­sion in which it ap­peared that Ar­ab-Is­raeli cit­izens were some­how por­trayed as an in­vad­ing force that might vote, and that this should be guarded against — this is con­trary to the very lan­guage of the Is­raeli De­clar­a­tion of In­de­pend­ence, which ex­pli­citly states that all people re­gard­less of race or re­li­gion are full par­ti­cipants in the demo­cracy. When something like that hap­pens, that has for­eign-policy con­sequences, and pre­cisely be­cause we’re so close to Is­rael, for us to simply stand there and say noth­ing would have meant that this of­fice, the Oval Of­fice, lost cred­ib­il­ity when it came to speak­ing out on these is­sues.

And when I am then re­quired to come to Is­rael’s de­fense in­ter­na­tion­ally, when there is anti-Semit­ism out there, when there is anti-Is­raeli policy that is based not on the par­tic­u­lars of the Palestini­an cause but [is] based simply on hos­til­ity, I have to make sure that I am en­tirely cred­ible in speak­ing out against those things, and that re­quires me then to also be hon­est with friends about how I view these is­sues. Now that makes, un­der­stand­ably, folks both in Is­rael and here in the United States un­com­fort­able.

(RE­LATED: Caught Between Pledge and Pois­on Pills, Mc­Con­nell May End Ir­an De­bate)

But the one ar­gu­ment that I very much have been con­cerned about, and it has got­ten stronger over the last 10 years … it’s less overt than the ar­gu­ments that a Shel­don Ad­el­son makes, but in some ways can be just as per­ni­cious, is this ar­gu­ment that there should not be dis­agree­ments in pub­lic. So a lot of times the cri­ti­cism that was leveled dur­ing this peri­od — in­clud­ing from you, Jeff — was not that you dis­agreed with me on the as­sess­ment, but rather that it’s dan­ger­ous or un­seemly for us to air these dis­agree­ments —

Gold­berg: I don’t think I ever —

Obama: You didn’t make that ar­gu­ment —

Gold­berg: I didn’t make that ar­gu­ment. I spend half my life air­ing those ar­gu­ments.

Obama: Fair enough. But you un­der­stand what I’m say­ing, Jeff. I un­der­stand why the Jew­ish-Amer­ic­an com­munity, people would get un­com­fort­able. I would get let­ters from people say­ing, “Listen, Mr. Pres­id­ent, I com­pletely sup­port you. I agree with you on this is­sue, but you shouldn’t say these things pub­licly.” Now the truth of the mat­ter is that what we said pub­licly was fairly spare and mild, and then would be built up — it seemed like an art­icle a day, partly be­cause when you get in ar­gu­ments with friends it’s a lot more news­worthy than ar­gu­ments with en­emies. Well, and it’s the same prob­lem that I’m hav­ing right now with the trade deals up on Cap­it­ol Hill. The fact that I agree with Eliza­beth War­ren on 90 per­cent of is­sues is not news. That we dis­agree on one thing is news. But my point, Jeff, is that we are at enough of an in­flec­tion point in terms of the re­gion that try­ing to pre­tend like these im­port­ant, dif­fi­cult policy ques­tions are not con­tro­ver­sial, and that they don’t have to be sor­ted out, I think is a prob­lem. And one of the great things about Is­rael is, these are ar­gu­ments that take place in Is­rael every day.

Gold­berg: It’s a 61/59 coun­try right now.

Obama: If you sit down in some cafe in Tel Aviv or Jer­u­s­alem, you’re hear­ing far more con­ten­tious ar­gu­ments, and that’s healthy. That’s part of why Amer­ic­ans love Is­rael, it’s part of the reas­on why I love Is­rael — be­cause it is a genu­ine demo­cracy and you can ex­press your opin­ions. But the most im­port­ant thing, I think, that we can do right now in strength­en­ing Is­rael’s po­s­i­tion is to de­scribe very clearly why I have be­lieved that a two-state solu­tion is the best se­cur­ity plan for Is­rael over the long term; for me to take very ser­i­ously Is­rael’s se­cur­ity con­cerns about what a two-state solu­tion might look like; to try to work through sys­tem­at­ic­ally those is­sues; but also, at the end of the day, to say to any Is­raeli prime min­is­ter that it will re­quire some risks in or­der to achieve peace. And the ques­tion you have to ask your­self then is: How do you weigh those risks against the risks of do­ing noth­ing and just per­petu­at­ing the status quo? My ar­gu­ment is that the risks of do­ing noth­ing are far great­er, and I ul­ti­mately — it is im­port­ant for the Is­raeli people and the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment to make its own de­cisions about what it needs to se­cure the people of that na­tion.

(RE­LATED: For Demo­crats on Ir­an, Tim­ing Is Everything)

But my hope is that over time that de­bate gets back on a path where there’s some semb­lance of hope and not simply fear, be­cause it feels to me as if, if all we are talk­ing about is based from fear. Over the short term that may seem wise — cyn­icism al­ways seems a little wise — but it may lead Is­rael down a path in which it’s very hard to pro­tect it­self —

Gold­berg: As a Jew­ish-ma­jor­ity demo­cracy.

Obama: — as a Jew­ish-ma­jor­ity demo­cracy. And I care deeply about pre­serving that Jew­ish demo­cracy, be­cause when I think about how I came to know Is­rael, it was based on im­ages of, you know —

Gold­berg: We talked about this once. Kib­butzim, and —

Obama: Kib­butzim, and Moshe Day­an, and Golda Meir, and the sense that not only are we cre­at­ing a safe Jew­ish home­land, but also we are re­mak­ing the world. We’re re­pair­ing it. We are go­ing to do it the right way. We are go­ing to make sure that the les­sons we’ve learned from our hard­ships and our per­se­cu­tions are ap­plied to how we gov­ern and how we treat oth­ers. And it goes back to the val­ues ques­tions that we talked about earli­er — those are the val­ues that helped to nur­ture me and my polit­ic­al be­liefs. It’s in­ter­est­ing, when I spoke to some lead­ers of Jew­ish or­gan­iz­a­tions a few months back, I said to them, it’s true, I have high ex­pect­a­tions for Is­rael, and they’re not un­real­ist­ic ex­pect­a­tions, they’re not stu­pid ex­pect­a­tions, they’re not the ex­pect­a­tions that Is­rael would risk its own se­cur­ity blindly in pur­suit of some ideal­ist­ic pie-in-the-sky no­tions.

(RE­LATED: Susan Rice on Ir­an Nuc­le­ar Ne­go­ti­ations: ‘A Bad Deal Is Worse Than No Deal’)

Gold­berg: But you want Is­rael to em­body Jew­ish val­ues.

Obama: I want Is­rael, in the same way that I want the United States, to em­body the Judeo-Chris­ti­an and, ul­ti­mately then, what I be­lieve are hu­man or uni­ver­sal val­ues that have led to pro­gress over a mil­len­ni­um. The same val­ues that led to the end of Jim Crow and slavery. The same val­ues that led to Nel­son Man­dela be­ing freed and a mul­tiracial demo­cracy emer­ging in South Africa. The same val­ues that led to the Ber­lin Wall com­ing down. The same val­ues that an­im­ate our dis­cus­sion on hu­man rights and our con­cern that people on the oth­er side of the world who may be tor­tured or jailed for speak­ing their mind or wor­ship­ping — the same val­ues that lead us to speak out against anti-Semit­ism. I want Is­rael to em­body these val­ues be­cause Is­rael is aligned with us in that fight for what I be­lieve to be true. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t tough choices and there aren’t com­prom­ises. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have to ask ourselves very tough ques­tions about, in the short term, do we have to pro­tect ourselves, which means we may have some choices that —

Gold­berg: Hard de­cisions.

Obama: — And hard de­cisions that in peace we will not make. Those are de­cisions that I have to make every time I de­ploy U.S. forces. Those are choices that we make with re­spect to drones, and with re­spect to our in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. And so when I spoke to Prime Min­is­ter Net­an­yahu, for ex­ample, about can we come up with a peace plan, I sent out our top mil­it­ary folks to go through sys­tem­at­ic­ally every con­tin­gency, every pos­sible con­cern that Is­rael might have on its own terms about main­tain­ing se­cur­ity in a two-state agree­ment, and what would it mean for the Jordan Val­ley, and what would it mean with re­spect to the West Bank, and I was the first one to ac­know­ledge that you can’t have the risk of ter­ror­ists com­ing up right to the edge of Jer­u­s­alem and ex­pos­ing pop­u­la­tions. So this isn’t an is­sue of be­ing na­ive or un­real­ist­ic, but ul­ti­mately yes, I think there are cer­tain val­ues that the United States, at its best, ex­em­pli­fies. I think there are cer­tain val­ues that Is­rael, and the Jew­ish tra­di­tion, at its best ex­em­pli­fies. And I am will­ing to fight for those val­ues.

Gold­berg: On this ques­tion, which is an Amer­ic­an cam­pus ques­tion, and which is a European ques­tion as well: Hol­lande’s gov­ern­ment [in France] — Manuel Valls, the prime min­is­ter — Dav­id Camer­on [in the U.K.] “… we were talk­ing about the line between anti-Zion­ism and anti-Semit­ism. And I know that you’ve talked about this with Jew­ish or­gan­iz­a­tions, with some of your Jew­ish friends — how you define the dif­fer­ences and the sim­il­ar­it­ies between these two con­cepts.

Obama: You know, I think a good baseline is: Do you think that Is­rael has a right to ex­ist as a home­land for the Jew­ish people, and are you aware of the par­tic­u­lar cir­cum­stances of Jew­ish his­tory that might prompt that need and de­sire? And if your an­swer is no, if your no­tion is some­how that that his­tory doesn’t mat­ter, then that’s a prob­lem, in my mind. If, on the oth­er hand, you ac­know­ledge the just­ness of the Jew­ish home­land, you ac­know­ledge the act­ive pres­ence of anti-Semit­ism — that it’s not just something in the past, but it is cur­rent — if you ac­know­ledge that there are people and na­tions that, if con­veni­ent, would do the Jew­ish people harm be­cause of a warped ideo­logy. If you ac­know­ledge those things, then you should be able to align your­self with Is­rael where its se­cur­ity is at stake, you should be able to align your­self with Is­rael when it comes to mak­ing sure that it is not held to a double stand­ard in in­ter­na­tion­al fora, you should align your­self with Is­rael when it comes to mak­ing sure that it is not isol­ated.

But you should be able to say to Is­rael, we dis­agree with you on this par­tic­u­lar policy. We dis­agree with you on set­tle­ments. We think that check­points are a genu­ine prob­lem. We dis­agree with you on a Jew­ish-na­tion­al­ist law that would po­ten­tially un­der­mine the rights of Ar­ab cit­izens. And to me, that is en­tirely con­sist­ent with be­ing sup­port­ive of the State of Is­rael and the Jew­ish people.

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