In Rosh Hashanah call with rabbis, Obama says Jewish role in civil rights can inspire healing


President Barack Obama told rabbis in a pre-High Holidays call that Jews should share their story of working to advance civil rights as a means of inspiring change at a time of racial tensions.

Obama spoke Monday with over 600 rabbis from the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist movements. His tone on the last such call before he leaves office was reflective.

Obama was introduced by Rabbi Leonard Matanky, the honorary president of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox umbrella.

“Rosh Hashanah is a time for reflection, and I’m not exempt from that,” Obama said in his opening remarks, which were on the record. “So, looking back on the last eight years, I’m both proud of what we’ve accomplished together, but also mindful of the work we have before us.”

His brief opening remarks covered the $38 billion defense assistance package he recently announced for Israel and what he described as the success of last year’s deal between Iran and the international community, swapping sanctions relief for safeguards that Iran would not obtain a nuclear weapon. He also spoke of his administration’s efforts to combat anti-Semitism and its allocation of resources to assist elderly Holocaust survivors.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, asked Obama what meaningful action he would recommend to heal wounds stoked by centuries of racism.

Obama recommended, among other things, registering voters, working with clergy in other denominations to reach out to racial minorities and advocating for better-trained police.

The president said relating the story of the black struggle was key, adding that the Jewish community had a unique role. He said that telling the story of the Jewish role in the civil rights era was a means of inspiring change.

Obama referred to the opening on the National Mall last weekend of the Museum of African American History and Culture.

“It is incredibly powerful that telling a story of both tragedy but ultimately triumph, and the Jewish community … played such a central role and continue to play such a central role when it comes to civil rights,” he said.

Asked by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who directs the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, what he would describe as his achievements in the U.S.-Israel relationship, Obama listed his efforts to bolster Israeli security, including the recent 10-year defense assistance agreement.

He also listed the Iran deal, although he recognized that Israel opposed the deal, and said he regretted not being able to make greater progress on advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Rabbi Elyse Wechterman of the Reconstrucionist Rabbinical Association asked what Obama was doing to end the refugee crisis. He said the priority was ending the violence in Syria, but also noted his plans to bring in 110,000 refugees next year.

Obama administration ‘concerned’ about Iran’s deployment of anti-aircraft missiles


The Obama administration expressed “concern” over the deployment of powerful anti-aircraft missiles near an Iranian enrichment facility ostensibly shuttered under the Iran nuclear deal, but said it did not violate embargoes.

Iran over the weekend announced the deployment of the Russian-made S-300 missiles around the Fordow facility.

“We’re concerned about the provision of sale to Iran of sophisticated defense capabilities such as this S-300,” John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said on Monday.

“As we get more information, obviously, we’re going to stay in close consultation with partners going forward,” he said. Russia, like the United States, is one of the six major powers that negotiated the sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal reached last year.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, speaking separately at the White House, also expressed concerns but said the sale did not violate arms embargoes on Iran.

“The arms embargo that had been in place under the previous regime would not have been applied to the S-300 system because it’s a defensive system,” Rhodes said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have concerns with any increased Iranian military capability, and we’ve expressed those concerns.”

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., an architect of the sanctions regime, said in a statement he believed Russia may be subject to sanctions because of the sale. “The Administration is failing to enforce U.S. laws that mandate sanctions against countries that export destabilizing advanced conventional weapons to Iran,” he said.

President Barack Obama in 2009 exposed Fordow as a bunker-style underground uranium enrichment facility and used its existence, kept secret for years by Iran, to persuade an alliance of nations to sanction Iran.

The sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, and once the deal was reached last year, Russia lifted a ban on the sale of the S-300s to Iran in place since 2010, when Israel and the United States prevailed on Russia not to make the sale.

Iranian regime statements said the deployment of the missiles was “defensive.” Iran maintains civilian uranium enrichment capabilities, but has shut down military-level enrichment.

Rhodes said that United Nations nuclear inspectors continue to monitor Fordow, and that Iran has kept its part of the deal, saying enrichment has stopped and centrifuges “have been, in many cases, removed and put under monitoring and storage.”

Obama’s final religious freedom report slams Muslim countries’ blasphemy laws


The Obama administration’s final report on religious freedoms focused on oppressive blasphemy laws and societal norms in Muslim countries.

The report for 2015, posted Wednesday on the State Department’s website, begins with a harrowing account of the stoning death last year of Farkhunda Malikzada, a resident of Kabul who was wrongly accused of burning a Koran.

It notes also the swift justice Afghanistan authorities delivered to her killers, saying this “demonstrates that change is possible.”

“In many other Islamic societies, societal passions associated with blasphemy — deadly enough in and of themselves — are abetted by a legal code that harshly penalizes blasphemy and apostasy,” said the report, compiled under the direction of Rabbi David Saperstein, the ambassador at large for religious freedoms, and until this appointment, the longtime director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“Such laws conflict with and undermine universally recognized human rights,” it said. “All residents of countries where laws or social norms encourage the death penalty for blasphemy are vulnerable to attacks such as the one on Farkhunda.”

It singled out for criticism, in the executive summary, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Pakistan.

The report’s tough tone comes after years of Obama administration outreach to the Muslim world, launched with a Cairo speech in 2009, shortly after he was elected.

That speech figured on a list of Obama administration accomplishments in advancing religious freedoms the White House posted Wednesday, separately from the State Department report.

The “Fact Sheet: Promoting and Protecting Religious Freedom Around the Globe” covering both of Obama’s terms had a slightly defensive tone.

“Throughout the Obama Administration, the U.S. Government has prioritized efforts to promote freedom of religion globally as a universal human right, a strategic national interest, and as a key foreign policy objective,” it said, and noted that advocacy to release religious prisoners of conscience often takes place behind the scenes.

Republicans and conservative Christian groups have accused Obama of deprioritizing advocacy for religious freedoms, compared with his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Among other accomplishments listed in the White House release are speeches in 2014 and 2016, when Obama decried the rise of anti-Semitism among other religious persecutions, and the convening in 2015, at the behest of the United States, Israel, Canada and the European Union, of a special United Nations session on combating anti-Semitism.

The State Department report’s Israel section noted a rise in attacks on Israeli Jews last year over tensions regarding Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, a site holy to Muslims and Jews, as well as retaliatory Jewish attacks on Muslims and Christians.

“Because religion and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize much of this violence as being solely based on religious identity,” it said.

It also noted the monopoly that the Orthodox rabbinate continues to maintain over Jewish religious life there.

“The government allowed persons of all religions to access the Western Wall, but with the strict separation of women and men,” it said. “The government implemented policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law; in July it reversed its previous decision to allow a wider spectrum of Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions. The government did not permit civil marriages, interfaith marriages, or marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis or nonrecognized religious authorities.”

In a separate section on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the report noted that “anti-Semitic material continued to appear” in official Palestinian Authority media in the West Bank and in Hamas media in the West Bank, and that Hamas and other radical groups often followed their rocket attacks on Israel with anti-Semitic statements claiming responsibility.

Israel’s Defense Ministry backs away from comparing Iran deal to Munich pact


Israel’s Defense Ministry offered a quasi-apology for comparing the Iran nuclear deal to the 1938 Munich Agreement.

On Monday, saying the media misinterpreted the original statement on Friday, the Defense Ministry said the reference to the Munich pact — a failed bid by European powers to appease Nazi Germany — “was not intended to make a direct comparison, either historically or personally. We are sorry if it was understood otherwise.”

The ministry added: “We wish to clarify that the State of Israel and Israeli defense establishment will continue to work in close and full cooperation with the US, out of a deep appreciation and mutual respect.”

The new statement added, however: “Israel remains deeply worried that even after the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Iranian leadership continues to declare that its central goal is the destruction of the State of Israel, and continues to threaten Israel’s existence in words and deeds.”

Israeli news reports over the weekend said the Prime Minister’s Office ordered the latter statement after being blindsided by the Defense Ministry’s statement on Friday. The Prime Minister’s Office worked overtime Friday night to downplay the original statement, including in a telephone call to the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, according to the reports.

The statement was in response to President Barack Obama saying on Thursday in defense of the deal, amid allegations that the United States paid Iran $400 million as “ransom” to secure the release of American prisoners, that the “Israeli military and security community … acknowledges this has been a game changer.”

“By all accounts, it has worked exactly the way we said it was going to work,” Obama also said.

“The Israeli defense establishment believes that agreements have value only if they are based on the existing reality, but they have no value if the facts on the ground are the complete opposite of those the deal is based upon,” the original Defense Ministry statement said.

“The Munich Agreement didn’t prevent the Second World War and the Holocaust precisely because its basis, according to which Nazi Germany could be a partner for some sort of agreement, was flawed, and because the leaders of the world then ignored the explicit statements of [Adolf] Hitler and the rest of Nazi Germany’s leaders. These things are also true about Iran, which also clearly states openly that its aim is to destroy the state of Israel.”

Netanyahu reaffirms alliance with U.S. following rebuke of Obama’s Iran Deal comments


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday reaffirmed the strong U.S.-Israel alliance after Israel’s Defense Ministry sent out a statement rejecting President Obama’s Thursday’s assertion that Israeli military officials believe the Iranian nuclear deal is being enforced beyond expectations.

“While Israel’s view on the Iran deal remains unchanged, Prime Minister Netanyahu firmly believes that Israel has no greater ally than the United States,” a statement from the Office of the Prime Minister read.

Earlier Friday, the Defense Ministry headed by Avigdor Lieberman likened the nuclear deal to the failed 1938 Munich agreement. “The Israeli defense establishment believes that agreements have value only if they are based on reality. They have no value if the facts on the ground are opposite to the ones the agreement is based on,” the statement read. “The Munich Agreements didn’t prevent World War II and the Holocaust because their fundamental assumption – that Nazi Germany can be partner to any agreement – was false, and because world leaders at the time ignored clear statements made by Hitler and other Nazi leaders.”

“Hence, the defense establishment, like the rest of the Israeli people and many in the world, understands that agreements of this kind signed between the world powers and Iran are not helpful, but only harm the uncompromising struggle that must be undertaken against a terrorist state like Iran.”

On Thursday, President Obama 


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Obama defends Iran cash payment story: ‘It wasn’t a secret’


President Barack Obama on Thursday strongly defended the nuclear deal and hostage arrangement with Iran amid an uproar over reports that the U.S. delivered $400 million in cash to Tehran in January.

“We announced these payments in January – many months ago. That wasn’t a secret,” Obama said in a press conference at the Pentagon on Thursday. “We announced them to all of you. This wasn’t some nefarious deal. And at the time, we explained that Iran had pressed a claim before an international tribunal about them recovering money of theirs – that we have frozen – that as a consequence of them working its way through the international tribunal, it was the assessment of our lawyers that we were now at a point where there was significant litigation risk and we could end up costing ourselves billions of dollars. It was their advice and suggestion that we settle, and that’s what these payments represent.”

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama Administration sent $400 million dollars – in “wooden pallets stacked with euros, Swiss francs and other currencies” – to Iran at the same time four American hostages were released. The paper quoted Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, as accusing the Obama administration of paying a “ransom to the ayatollah for US hostages.”

Obama defended the administration’s decision to send cash and disputed the notion that it was a ransom payment for the release of American hostages. “We do not pay ransom. We didn’t here, and we won’t in the future,” Obama said. “Those families know we have a policy that we don’t pay ransom. And the notion that we would somehow start now, in this high-profile way, and announce it to the world, even as we’re looking in the faces of other hostage families whose loved ones are being held hostage, and saying to them we don’t pay ransom, defies logic.”

The president also pointed out that the nuclear deal has been working for over a year despite initial warnings and pessimistic predictions that the Iranians would violate the terms of the agreement. “It’s now been well over a year since the agreement with Iran to stop its nuclear program was signed and by all accounts it has worked exactly the way we said it was going to work,” Obama said. “It’s not just the assessment of our intelligence community, it’s the assessment of the Israeli military and intelligence community – the country that was most opposed to this deal that acknowledges that this has been a game changer and that Iran has abided by the deal, and that they no longer have the sort of short-term breakout capacity that would allow them to develop nuclear weapons.”

If there is some news to be made,” Obama continued, “why not have some of these folks who were predicting disaster say, you know what, this thing actually worked. Now that would be a shock. That would be impressive. But of course that wasn’t going to happen. Instead what we have is the manufacturing of outrage in a story that we disclosed in January.”

 

Spanish leftists’ party under fire for anti-Semitic Obama tweet


Spanish Jews condemned a left-wing party’s use of anti-Semitic imagery meant to protest President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to the country.

The Madrid branch of Izquerda Unida, or United Left, on Thursday tweeted the cartoon image, which depicts a thick-lipped Obama standing behind a wall amid explosions while hugging a Jew with side curls, a kippah emblazoned with the Star of David and a suit in the light-blue color on the Israeli flag. The Obama character is shown slipping a wad of cash in or out of the Jew’s pocket. It used the hashtag #ObamaGoHome.

United Left, which has eight lawmakers out of 350 in the Spanish congress, later tweeted a picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting a victim of a terrorist attack, with a caption comparing Israeli soldiers to Islamic State fighters.

In far-left circles across Western Europe, many have claimed equivalence, cooperation or both between Israel and ISIS.

“United Left is [perpetuating] the most repugnant anti-Semitic stereotypes with this image,” the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, of FCJE, wrote in a statement Friday, “in accordance with the Nazi paper Der Sturmer, trying to caricature and vituperate with unfounded and defamatory myths, both blacks and Jews, as well as stable democracies such as the United States and its ally, Israel.”

ACOM, a Madrid-based group devoted to advocating Israel’s position in Spain and fighting attempts to boycott the Jewish state, called on authorities to take action against those responsible for disseminating the image.

“In any civilized country, public prosecutors would do their jobs and the parties responsible would have been detained by police,” ACOM said in its statement Thursday. “We urge the relevant authorities to end their inaction and resume their responsibilities.”

Like other European countries, Spain has laws that can make discriminatory speech a crime.

Separately, a Spanish court earlier this month suspended motions calling for a boycott of Israel that were approved in April by the municipality of Barberá del Vallès in the autonomous region of Catalonia. In keeping with rulings by higher courts in Spain over the past year, the Fifth Administrative Court of Barcelona ordered the motion scrapped because it risks encouraging discrimination.

Giuliani defends Trump over Obama comments


Former Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani on Tuesday defended controversial comments made by presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, which was interpreted as implying that President Obama is sympathetic to Islamic terrorism.

“I am very disturbed by the president’s failure to use the word Islamic terrorism,” Giuliani said in an interview on CNN’s “New Day” morning program. “And I do believe that the president’s rhetoric has something to do with the fact that some of the people in San Bernardino didn’t turn in the suspicious acts of terrorism that they saw in the days before the attack in San Bernardino. The words that the president uses are important. And he is creating a feeling, particularly among maybe more liberal members of society, you can’t say Islamic terrorism.”

On Monday, responding to the deadly Orlando nightclub shooting, Trump suggested Obama may be sympathetic to Islamic terrorism. “[Obama] doesn’t get it, or he gets it better than anybody understands,” Trump said on “Fox n’ Friends” program. “It’s one or the other. And either one is unacceptable. We are led by a man who is either not tough, not smart, or he has something else in mind. And the something else in mind, people can’t believe it.”

The comments drew fire from inside and outside his party. “Donald Trump seems to connect President Obama to Orlando shooting,” a “>Bloomberg News, insisted that he “was referring to the fact that at times President Obama seems more in support of Muslims than Israel.”

“For example, the Iran deal, which was one of the worst deals in history, gave $150 billion dollars to a radical regime, which will allow them to fund terrorist activities as well as pursue their stated goal of ‘full annihilation and destruction’ of Israel,” the presumptive Republican presidential nominee asserted. “It is great for Iran and bad for Israel and the United States.”

“We’re in a much more dangerous situation than we were before Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton took over,” Giuliani said on CNN. “And I have a strong belief, after 35 years of dealing with Islamic terrorism of an extremist nature, that the more you are on defense, the more they’re on defense. And the more you’re on offense, the less they come after you.”

The former New York Mayor, appearing on the “Fox n’ Friends” program, criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio for ending police surveillance of mosques. “There is no minister, there is no rabbi in this city nor are there some imams that object to having police officers in their congregation. In fact, they want them there,” Giuliani said. “They want them to learn the message. It’s enlightening for them.”
“So you’ve got — if you’ve got nothing going on there but a beautiful religious service, why in His name would you not want to have police officers there?” he asked.

Newt Gingrich, appearing on the same show Monday, 

Congress to block Obama’s proposed cuts to anti-terror funding


Congress is moving towards passing a Homeland Security budget that will restore $270 million in funds for the Urban Area Security Initiative in the 2017 budget, back to the 2016 funding level of $600 million, Senator Chuck Schumer announced on Thursday.

Since February, Schumer 

Obama calls for solidarity with European Jews, Jewish students on Holocaust Remembrance Day


In his Holocaust Remembrance Day message, President Barack Obama called for solidarity with Jews facing anti-Semitism in Europe and on campuses.

“Today, and every day, we stand in solidarity with the Jewish community both at home and abroad,” Obama said in his statement released Wednesday afternoon, on the eve of commemorations.

“We stand with those who are leaving the European cities where they have lived for generations because they no longer feel safe, with the members of institutions that have been attacked because of their Jewish affiliations, and with the college students forced to confront swastikas appearing on their campuses,” he said. “And we call upon all people of good will to be vigilant and vocal against every form of bigotry.”

Obama in his message also honored the 6 million Jews who perished during the Holocaust and those who survived, and drew from the day a more universal message.

“When we recognize our interconnectedness and the fundamental dignity and equality of every human being, we help to build a world that is more accepting, secure and free,” he said.

In a separate statement, Secretary of State John Kerry, who discovered late in life that his father’s parents were Jewish, noted his personal connection to the events to also draw lessons about the particular threats facing Jews and the universal need for tolerance.

“As I have learned in the past decade, some of my own relatives were among those who perished in Auschwitz, Terezin, Sobibor and Dachau,” Kerry said.

“But the lessons of the Holocaust, and the need for remembrance, are universal, and as relevant to everyone today as they were seven decades ago,” he said. “All of us should remember that many Jews fleeing violence and extremism were denied entry to our ports. All of us must stand firmly and resolutely against resurgent anti-Semitism, sectarian hatred and bigotry in our time. All of us must act to confront discrimination on the basis of race or religion, insist on the rule of law in relations between nations and peoples, and do all we can to uphold the fundamental dignity of every human being.”

Penny Pritzker, the commerce secretary and the scion of a hotel businessman who was an early Jewish backer of Obama, was set to deliver remarks Thursday on behalf of the government at the annual commemoration in the Capitol organized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Clinton allies refute Trump’s claim on Obama’s Israel record


The Hillary campaign on Wednesday pushed back against Donald Trump’s 

Obama, asking ‘mah nishtana?’ answers that it’s his last White House Passover


President Barack Obama sounded a wistful note in his last Passover message as president.

“Mah nishtana halailah hazeh?” said the White House statement released Friday, hours before the start of the holiday, using the Hagadah’s phrase, reserved for the youngest child at the seder meal, who asks “Why is this night different from all others?”

“For Michelle and me, this Passover is different from all other Passovers because it will mark our last Seder in the White House – a tradition we have looked forward to each year since hosting the first-ever White House Seder in 2009,” Obama said in his message.

Obama this year is holding the seder late because he is overseas during the first two nights of the holiday.

The statement sounded familiar notes from past Obama statements for Jewish holidays, linking the quest for Jewish freedom to broader civil and human rights themes.

“This story of redemption and hope, told and retold over thousands of years, has comforted countless Jewish families during times of oppression, echoing in rallying cries for civil rights around the world,” Obama said.

“We dip the greens of renewal in saltwater to recall the tears of those imprisoned unjustly,” he said. “As we count the 10 Plagues, we spill wine from our glasses to remember those who suffered and those who still do. And as we humbly sing ‘Dayenu,’ we are mindful that even the smallest blessings and slowest progress deserve our gratitude.”

He signed the message, “chag sameach,,” the Hebrew for “Happy Holiday.”

Earlier this week, Obama on April 18 also marked “Education and Sharing Day,” a declaration presidents have issued since the Carter administration in honor of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad Lubavitch movement.

Obama cited Schneerson’s “tireless devotion to extending access to education to more people — regardless of their gender or background.”

He cited among his presidency’s education initiatives expanding access to early childhood education and a proposal to make two years of community college available to those who work for it.

“The Rebbe’s lifetime of contribution imparts a reminder of the tremendous importance of making sure every child has the tools and resources they need to grow, flourish, and pursue their dreams,” Obama said in that statement.

In Riyadh, Obama defends nuclear talks with Iran


President Barack Obama strongly defended the nuclear negotiations with Iran at the end of the US-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday.

Speaking at the conclusion of the summit, Obama said the outcome of the negotiations proved it was the right approach to take despite the Saudis and Gulf countries’ concerns that the United States was “naïve” when dealing with Iran.

“John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan still negotiated with the Soviet Union even when the Soviet Union was threatening the destruction of the U.S.,” he said. “That’s the same approach we have to take. Even as Iran is calling us the great Satan, we were able to get a deal done that reduces their nuclear stockpiles. That’s not a sign of weakness, that’s a sign of strength.”

The President maintained that the Iran nuclear deal “cut off every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.” But he said the United States continues to have “serious concerns” about Iran’s behavior in the region. He also raised the possibility of diplomacy to resolve conflicts in Yemen and Syria, since ”none of our nations have an interest in conflict with Iran.”

“We’ll remain vigilant to ensure that Iran fulfills its commitments, just as we will fulfill ours,” Obama promised.

Thursday’s summit was preceded by bilateral talks that Obama held with Saudi King Salman on Wednesday in which the two leaders sought to restore the relationship strained in the aftermath of the Iran deal. According to U.S. officials, Obama pressed the Saudi King to be more open to engaging in diplomacy and to find alternatives to direct confrontation with Iran’s leadership.

“We made very clear to the leaders last night and today on the subject of Iran that our partners, our friends in this region are in the room with us here, and Iran, on the other hand, has in many ways been confrontational not just to the countries here in the GCC, but to the United States as well, and that we share their concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program, its destabilizing activities in the region, its ongoing support for terrorism,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Thursday. “And, in fact, many of the capabilities that we’re developing on the defense side through this process are focused on countering Iranian actions.”

Rhodes said President Obama made the point to Gulf leaders that their concern with Iran “should not foreclose the potential for diplomatic engagement if there’s an ability to resolve problems. And a recent example, of course, is the nuclear deal where, despite all of our concerns about Iran’s behavior, we were able to see a significant rollback in the Iranian nuclear program because we pursued a diplomatic process.”

Paul Ryan, out of the running for president, asks to be seen as foreign policy maven


Paul Ryan wants you to know he’s not running for president, he’s no fan of the Obama doctrine and he’s not a neoconservative.

What the Wisconsin congressman wants to be, he suggested at an April 14 breakfast in his Capitol Hill offices with foreign policy reporters, is the leader of the Republican Party, especially when it comes to corralling seemingly incompatible foreign policy visions that have in this wild election year threatened to rip his party to shreds.

Ryan expounded on his vision a week after his first visit to the Middle East as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. There he met with leaders of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Ryan sounded familiar notes on Israel, saying the United States must frustrate any Palestinian attempt to obtain statehood through the United Nations. He backs extending and expanding the defense assistance agreement with Israel, but said that was a matter right now for negotiations between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. He has tasked top members of Congress with smoothing defense assistance to Israel and other allies, calling the process right now “sclerotic.”

The main concerns of the leaders he met were Iran’s post-nuclear deal behavior and the threat to the region posed by the Syrian civil war.

“Everybody talks about the Iran deal, of course, there’s a lot of concern about backsliding on sanctions,” he said. He was referring to reports that the Obama administration planned to make it easier for Iran to trade in dollars. Obama administration officials have denied the reports.

He also said there were concerns about how Iran would use the money to expand its influence in the region.

“Most people are concerned about the cash they’re going to get perhaps in dollar-denominated forms and how that will fund their ambitions in a way that will come at the expense of our allies in the region,” he said.

His main theme, however, was that America is waning in power and influence.

“Who else is going to lead the world?” Ryan asked.

His principle target was President Barack Obama, but he took aim at the Republican presidential front-runner, Donald Trump,  and implicitly criticized Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is gaining on Trump. He also rejected the neoconservative doctrines that guided the first term of President George W. Bush.

Ryan has emphatically ruled out being drafted to be the Republican candidate in November at his divided party’s nominating convention. But in the interview, the speaker made clear that he wants to fill a vacuum created by the primaries season, which likely will see no clear winner emerge at the Cleveland convention in July.

He struck a middle ground between the sharp isolationism emerging from the Cruz and Trump campaigns and the robust interventionism of the Bush administration.

“I’m not a neocon,” Ryan said, unprompted. “Now neocon is simply seen as AEI,” the American Enterprise Institute, a notably dismissive reference to the think tank that long embodied and defended Bush administration policies.

Those remarks were evidence that the notion that the Bush’s Iraq War was misbegotten, until last year confined to the margins of the party associated with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and his congressman father, Ron, is now ensconced in the establishment.

“I believe we need to be consistent in expressing our values, we always need to be consistent so there’s no ambiguity about who we are, but we have to be realistic about how far those values can be pushed,” Ryan said. “The No. 1 primary objective is national security.”

That meant sustaining alliances with strongmen like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi while seeking to influence democratization through the projection of “soft power,” like trade agreements and promoting democracy projects, a posture that Cruz has rejected.

Ryan faulted Obama for what he said was a reduction of the U.S. defense profile overseas.

“The U.S. has an important role to play in help keeping the global commons safe,” he said.

Ryan said his role as chairman of the Budget Committee had precluded him from joining committees that dealt with foreign policy that he otherwise would have enjoyed, including Intelligence and Foreign Affairs.

“One of the most exciting parts of this new job I wasn’t planning on taking was being involved in foreign policy,” said Ryan, who was cajoled last year into the speakership after Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, stepped down, frustrated at trying to keep the party’s conservative wing from shutting down the government.

Ryan also made it clear that he had presented himself to Middle East leaders as an alternative to the vacuum he posited that was being left by the Obama administration and to Trump’s disdain for traditional alliances, including with NATO.

“Our allies are concerned that America is experiencing lethargy, fatigue,” he said. “My goal was to reassure them how important our strategic alliances are.”

He also sounded a warning suggesting that defense assistance to allies could be susceptible to budget restrictions. Ryan is seeking rollbacks on entitlement funding as a means, in part, of maintaining a robust U.S. defense profile.

“Our budget is constrained because we’re not dealing with mandatory spending,” he said. “We have shrinking space for discretionary spending.”

Regarding Syria, Ryan said Obama’s extensive interview in this month’s Atlantic Monthly with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg set off alarm bells. The speaker said leaders recited passages of the piece back to him verbatim.

Without providing details, Obama in the piece defends a policy that he has defined as “don’t do stupid stuff,” particularly regarding his decision in 2013 not to strike Syria for its use of chemical weapons, despite having pledged to do so.

“Our allies needed a reassurance that we value these friendships and these partnerships,” Ryan said.

Ryan said Trump’s broadsides against Muslims also concerned foreign leaders, including in Israel, and he spoke out at the time to tamp down the fires the remarks were stoking in the Muslim world.

“Everybody pays attention to our politics,” he said. “When he proposed the Muslim immigration ban, that really got under my skin.”

Obama to host late Passover seder this year


President Barack Obama will host a Passover seder this year, but not on either of the nights it is required according to Jewish custom.

A spokeswoman told JTA that Obama will host the seder next week following his return from travel overseas.

Obama will be in Saudi Arabia on the first and second nights of Passover, Friday and Saturday, attending a regional cooperation summit.

Obama joined a seder organized by campaign staffers in Pennsylvania during the hard-fought 2008 primary season, when he first ran for president. Since then, he has made it a custom to hold one in the White House, and include among his guests Jewish staffers and backers.

Will President Obama speak at J Street?


Speculation abounds that President Obama may refocus his attention, during the final year of his presidency, on the failed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Observers now wonder where and when?

Election year initiatives are typically fraught with complications — in a world of complicated issues, Israel and the Middle East play in a league of their own. Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined an invitation to meet with President Obama at the White House prior to AIPAC’s Policy Conference. The official reason was Netanyahu’s desire to avoid interfering in U.S. elections by meeting with any of the presidential hopefuls addressing AIPAC.

The two leaders are in midst of negotiating a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) security package. Gaps remain (The U.S. is offering $3.4 billion of annual aid, while Israel seeks $5 billion) and could have contributed to Netanyahu postponing a visit until an agreement can be signed in-person. But a WSJ report on March 7 pointed to another source of tension: an American administration discussing new ideas to revive peace talks before Obama leaves office, and an Israeli Prime Minister fearing an Oval Office ambush.

According to Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat who participated in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations following the Camp David summit in 2000, there’s no doubt that at some point between now and January 2017, Obama will seek to outline his own version of the Bill Clinton parameters before leaving office.

One opportunity currently being discussed, according to a half dozen insiders interviewed for this story, is the upcoming J Street National Gala on April 18 in Washington, D.C. Whether the President will take the opportunity to address a group closely aligned with his administration’s policies — that prides itself on being Obama’s ‘blocking back’ in Congress — has yet to be confirmed.

J Street spokeswoman Jessica Rosenblum did confirm to Jewish Insider that the group reached out to the White House and eagerly awaits a decision on which administration official will keynote the Gala. Vice President Joe Biden and WH Chief of Staff Denis McDonough have addressed J Street’s annual conference in prior years.

As detailed in Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent article on ‘The Obama Doctrine’, the President shows little interest, and perhaps a strong dislike of the D.C. foreign policy establishment. The opportunity to elevate J Street with a presidential address may be too great to pass up during the final year in office.

“I do know that the president is seriously considering making a major speech and presenting, what we call for a lack of a better term, the Obama parameters,” Pinkas told Jewish Insider. “I don’t know for a fact he would want to do this as early as April, but he could surprise us. But that said, he’s the president. He has every podium and every opportunity to do whatever he wants.”

Knesset Member Michael Oren (Kulanu), who served as Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. (2009-2013) and has since been critical of the President’s handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship, told Jewish Insider in a phone interview, “It’s a possibility. I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility.”

“I know that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is close to his heart,” Oren explained. “If he can do anything on the diplomatic sphere, he is going to do it.”

Others were more dismissive, noting the challenge this would present to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton as she seeks to make additional inroads in a pro-Israel community weary of Donald Trump.

Aaron David Miller, an American Middle East analyst and Vice President for New Initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says there is no way Obama goes to J Street – or unveils anything prior the general election in the fall – that could potentially complicate Hillary Clinton’s White House bid.

“Why the President would go to J Street, given the nature of the relationship that exists right now, given the fact that he wants to elect her to succeed it, why would he want to complicate her life?” Miller told Jewish Insider in a phone interview. “I’m not sure it’s that much of a priority, and frankly, if he went to J Street and gave a pro-peace process speech it would probably just increase the gap between his words on one hand and what he was prepared to do on the other.”

Miller maintained that Obama would consider Hillary Clinton’s campaign before taking such a step. “Not since 1988 has a two-term president passed party control to a member of the same party,” he asserted. “That’s really important if he could manage to do that. That would mean between now and November trying to do things that don’t embarrass her, giving the Republican’s all kinds of ammunition and make life hard for her. Going to J Street, in my judgment, is just a needless aggravation. I don’t understand what it would achieve.”

While agreeing that such a speech could complicate matters for Clinton, Pinkas raised the possibility that Obama would outline his vision only once the MOU is signed, minimizing the risk to Clinton. “Once he signs the MOU, which will be worth anything between $3.6 and $4.1 billion annually, he could say ‘I just provided Israel’s security with an enhancement package that will support Israel. I care about Israel’s security. But! Israel must remain a Jewish democracy. I care about Israel losing its character,’” Pinkas explained. “Once he has the MOU in his pockets, you can’t really attack him. It will also make Hillary Clinton’s case easier.”

A 2016 election column that doesn’t mention Donald Trump


The 2016 presidential campaign is a real doozy and not only because of colorful personalities and bitterly fought primaries. It is nothing less than a test of the strength of two competing visions of America grappling with a wide range of issues that have been sucked into what increasingly seems a zero-sum game.

If 2008 was a big step, 2016 is the other shoe dropping, and we don’t know if that second shoe will be on the left or the right foot.

Everything else is noise.

The historic 2008 election was a turning point, when a reshaped Democratic coalition backing Barack Obama came to power. With Obama’s election, the Democratic coalition was transformed by a new multiracial and younger party base quite different from the 1990s party that had backed Bill Clinton. This new coalition won two presidential majorities for Democrats, a rarity since Franklin D. Roosevelt. And it made a profound difference in government.

The Affordable Care Act was the biggest expansion of medical coverage since Medicare passed in 1965. Diplomatic agreements with Cuba and Iran have changed the calculus of world politics. A new global agreement on climate change has created the possibility of a unified human response to the greatest threat the species has faced. New executive orders moved immigration reform forward.

Obama’s election set off a profound reaction on the conservative side that implicated everything about people’s view of themselves and of America. The conflict is about the role of government, but also about identity — about whose America this is. The stakes of winning and losing keep getting higher. It’s no coincidence that there is a “hope gap” in the polls and in political rhetoric. Older white voters are the most pessimistic about the country’s direction, while Latinos are among the most optimistic.

Who will prevail in 2016 — the vision of change that Obama presented and, to a significant degree, accomplished and on which he was re-elected in 2012, or the dream of rolling back those changes that prevailed in the off-year elections of 2010 and 2014? The final nominees from the two parties will completely disagree about whether these changes should stand or be rolled back.

With the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the stakes got even higher. A 5-4 conservative majority has become a 4-4 split, and the battle over whether Obama can name the ninth justice has occupied Washington. If a new 5-4 liberal majority emerges, a host of decisions made by the conservative court, including the campaign finance ruling known as Citizens United, might be overturned. What had seemed to necessitate a constitutional amendment is now within reach. Conversely, a renewed conservative majority on the Court will last a generation, and Roe v. Wade might be overturned.

In fact, the next president will be able either to consolidate the direction charted by Obama and take it further, or conversely, go beyond eliminating what Obama did and push in the other direction. A Democratic president might be able to appoint a new Supreme Court majority, or extend the health care law and environmental regulations. Based on the experience of states controlled by Republicans, a Republican president and Congress might pass a national voter ID law that would drastically reduce Democratic voting, or pursue legislation to limit collective bargaining by unions.

There was a time when an election to succeed a two-term president was not about everything. We could assume that some things would change and some would stay the same, no matter who won. Those days are gone.

It does not matter who wins the Republican nomination, whether one of the four in the field, or one of those watching from the sidelines and waiting for the call of his party. While each Republican will come from a different place in the party, with a unique style, each will be pledged to undo the policies of the last eight years. If, as seems likely, Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she will be pledged to protect Obama’s policies and “finish the job” (in the words of Vice President Joe Biden).

Despite all the turmoil in the Republican Party today and the divisions over who will be the nominee, Republicans are likely to be highly unified and mobilized around the direction they want the country to go. Democrats are different, struggling to connect with their own grass roots and not quite able to explain to undecided or reluctant voters the stakes of the election in a way that will resonate. Republicans have invested in their vision of stopping and reversing Obama’s presidency, while Democrats have been struggling to paint a picture of a mountain climb that requires the nation to keep ascending against great resistance, portraying change as a marathon, not a sprint.

Behind this consequential battle, one that has largely been overlooked in the daily, personality-driven media coverage of this campaign, is a potential tipping point in American democracy.

Juan José Linz, a Yale political scientist and sociologist who died in 2013, has been getting some attention lately. When I was a Yale graduate student in the early 1970s, I took his course “Why Democracies Fail.” It was a remarkable and at times alarming class as we saw how democracies have fallen (and, at times, risen again). In his later work on “presidentialism,” Linz argued that the United States was the only nation with a separation of powers between president and Congress that had survived. He believed that our presidential system had survived because the parties were not fully cohesive in the way of parliamentary parties, but instead were filled with diverse and contradictory ideological forces. Now, as each party becomes more ideologically cohesive than ever before, we could be headed for a crackup. With Democrats doing well in presidential elections and Republicans dominating midterms, we have competing legitimacies.

Republicans have taken the lead in transforming our system of a separation of powers into a quasi-parliamentary model, at least for Democratic presidents. In other words, they have tried to prevent Democratic presidents from governing when Republicans hold one or both houses of Congress on the grounds that congressional legitimacy is equal to that of the president. This was the basis for the famous meeting held by Republicans on Capitol Hill in 2009 right after Obama’s victory, and it is evident again in their current refusal to consider an Obama nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy. There is reason to think that if the Republicans hold onto the Senate in the upcoming election, they would not confirm a Hillary Clinton appointee to the high court by arguing they have the electoral legitimacy to refuse. 

Given this, Democratic presidents will succeed only by putting public pressure on Republicans or by solving their colossal and increasing problem of low voter turnout in midterm elections magnified by rampant voter suppression. They have to explain to their own supporters why change is so agonizingly slow. The Republican strategy has the political virtue of demoralizing Democratic voters who expected change to happen much more quickly.

I will definitely be watching and enjoying the presidential race with all of its drama, its personalities and down-low fun. I’m no prude about this stuff. But I am also keeping my eye on the actual stakes of the election and on the prospects for a successful American democracy. 

Raphael J. Sonenshein is the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

Netanyahu’s office says White House knew meeting might not take place


The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected an Obama administration official’s statement that the White House was “surprised” to learn that Netanyahu decided not to meet with the president in Washington, D.C., later this month.

“Last Friday, during a meeting in the White House, Israel’s envoy to Washington, Ron Dermer, expressed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appreciation for Obama’s offer to meet with him should he visit Washington,” according to a statement issued Tuesday by the Prime Minister’s Office “With that, Dermer also informed them that there was a high chance that the prime minister won’t go to Washington, and that a final answer would be given Monday after he spoke with him.”

The statement from Netanyahu’s office said that reports in Israeli media saying that President Barack Obama was unwilling to meet with Netanyahu were “erroneous.”

“The prime minister’s office immediately corrected the erroneous news reports and officially informed the administration that the prime minister would not be coming to Washington,” said the statement, emailed to JTA by Israel’s embassy in Washington.

An Obama administration spokesman said Monday that the White House had learned that an offered March 18 meeting between Obama and Netanyahu in Washington would not take place.

“The Israeli government requested a meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu on March 17 or 18,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in an email to JTA.

“Two weeks ago, the White House offered the Prime Minister a meeting on March 18th. We were looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting, and we were surprised to first learn via media reports that the Prime Minister, rather than accept our invitation, opted to cancel his visit.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee had invited Netanyahu to address its annual conference March 20-22 in Washington, but Netanyahu turned down the invitation, according to the statement from Netanyahu’s office. He will deliver a speech via satellite.

Israeli media and CNN reported Monday evening that Netanyahu’s true motive for not visiting the U.S. capital now is that he is wary of being caught up in an especially bitter election year contest, one in which support for Israel has been a contentious issue. The reports cite anonymous sources with knowledge of Netanyahu’s thinking.

AIPAC is expected to invite some or all of the presidential candidates to its conference, and several could have requested a meeting with Netanyahu.

Vice President Joe Biden arrives  in Israel Tuesday evening for an official visit that includes a meeting with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu spoke at last year’s AIPAC conference in Washington. Obama declined to meet with Netanyahu at that time, since it was just two weeks before national elections in Israel. Netanyahu spoke at a joint meeting of Congress, however, angering the White House because it had not been made aware of the address.

A simple solution to the Obama-Netanyahu problem


Things seemed to be going so well between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Then, one meeting falls through and it sounds like the Iran deal days again.

According to the White House, the Israeli prime minister was ready to turn up for a meeting with Obama next week ahead of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference — until he wasn’t, and then he let the media blame Obama for not wanting to see him.

According to Netanyahu’s office, the prime minister was never likely to come to Washington, D.C., and the White House knew this.

So how Obama learned Netanyahu wasn’t coming is in dispute. But both sides agree that the Israeli media was wrong in its reporting that Netanyahu had been denied a meeting with the president.

“Reports that we were not able to accommodate the Prime Minister’s schedule are false,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said Monday.

“On Monday news reports suggested that the PM would not be traveling to Washington and erroneously stated that the President was unwilling to meet with the PM,” the Prime Minister’s Office said the same day.

Assuming neither side is happy about the reports — and it’s hard to see why they would be — the problem is clear: a lack of communication.

Nathan Diament, the director of the Orthodox Union’s office pleaded Tuesday in a statement, “It’s terribly disappointing that, after President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to ‘move on’ from the tensions over the Iran nuclear deal, and had a professional meeting last fall, they – or at least their staffs – are slipping back into the soap opera pattern of miscommunication and media slights.”

The good news is the solution is also clear: communication.

Obama’s going to be out of town visiting Cuba during the AIPAC conference? Netanyahu’s not sure he wants to get dragged into the politics of the America presidential campaign? No problem. Just pick up the phone.

All you need is two officials who get along and who take each other’s calls. This is not a novel idea. It’s been a longstanding tradition between Israel and the United States. But numerous officials have told me that it has not been the case since the end of Obama’s first term, when national security advisers Tom Donilon and Yaakov Amidror got along famously and were each other’s point men.

Who would’ve thought Obama’s first term would become the good old days in U.S.-Israel relations?

Obama urged to meet survivors of terror attacks on Argentina Jewish sites


Leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee urged President Barack Obama to meet with survivors of two 1990s terrorist attacks on Jewish institutions when he travels to Argentina.

“As you work to renew the partnership between the United States and Argentina, we would like to suggest that you use this visit as an opportunity to pay tribute to victims of terrorism in Argentina and pledge to help bring those responsible to justice,” said the March 1 letter from Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the committee chairman, and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., its top Democrat.

“The attacks that targeted the Israeli Embassy on March 17, 1992 and the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) on July 18, 1994 were the deadliest in the country’s history,” the letter said. “Recognizing the victims and pledging assistance would send an important signal that the U.S. will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Argentina to fight terrorism.”

Obama is traveling to Argentina on March 23-24.

The Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah is widely believed to have carried out the attacks with Iranian backing. The embassy bombing killed 29 people and the AMIA Jewish center attack left 85 dead. Hundreds of people were wounded.

Argentina has yet to bring the killers to justice, and there are allegations that over the years some Argentine authorities, including former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, were compromised by efforts to maintain ties with Iran. A Jewish federal prosecutor investigating the crime, Alberto Nisman, allegedly was murdered last year after making charges to that effect against Kirchner.

Obama signs anti-BDS bill, objects to pro-settlement provisions


President Barack Obama reiterated his strong opposition to the BDS movement as he signed the “Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015″ on Wednesday despite the inclusion of a provision that makes anti-BDS sanctions equally applicable to “Israel” and “Israeli-controlled territories.”

The bill, which passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 256-158 and the Senate by a vote of 75-20, includes a clause that addresses politically motivated acts to limit or prohibit economic relations with Israel — targeting corporate entities or state-affiliated financial institutions from engaging in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

“I have directed my Administration to strongly oppose boycotts, divestment campaigns, and sanctions targeting the State of Israel,” President Obama said in a statement following the signing ceremony in the Oval Office. “As long as I am President, we will continue to do so.”

However, the President objected to the wording that conflates Israel and ‘Israeli-controlled territories,’ since they are “contrary to longstanding bipartisan United States policy, including with regard to the treatment of settlements.”

“Consistent with longstanding constitutional practice, my Administration will interpret and implement the provisions in the Act that purport to direct the Executive to seek to negotiate and enter into particular international agreements (section 414(a)(1)) or to take certain positions in international negotiations with respect to international agreements with foreign countries not qualifying for trade authorities procedures (sections 108(b), 414(a)(2), 415, and 909(c)) in a manner that does not interfere with my constitutional authority to conduct diplomacy,” the White House statement read.

Kerry on MOU agreement: ‘The sooner the better’


The sooner the post-Iran deal security package and the “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) between the U.S. and Israel on strategic cooperation is signed, the better it would be for both countries, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday.

“We are working on it now; we are in negotiations. We have never, ever put any of Israel’s needs or challenges on the table with respect to other issues between us,” Kerry said Thursday morning during a hearing at the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”I am confident we will get an MOU at some point and time. The sooner the better because it allows everybody to plan appropriately.”

Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told cabinet members that it’s unclear whether the two countries will come to an agreement during Obama’s term. “[We] need to see if [we] can achieve a result that will address Israel’s security needs or perhaps we will not manage to come to an agreement with this administration and will need to come to an agreement with the next administration,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying by Haaretz.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Monday that the security package will likely be complete “in the coming weeks.” Netanyahu is expected to travel to the U.S. next month to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference. It remains unclear whether he will meet with President Obama to finalize the details and sign the decade-long agreement.

“Israel’s security comes first and foremost. President Obama has, I think, unprecedentedly addressed those concerns with the Iron Dome, with assistance, with our efforts on global institutions to not see Israel singled out, and we will continue to do what is necessary to provide Israel with all the assistance necessary so it can provide for its own security,” Kerry said.

During the hearing, Kerry reiterated the administration’s opposition to BDS activities against Israel.

At prayer breakfast, Obama cites rescuers, Jewish fight for civil rights


President Barack Obama cited examples of Jews and those who rescued them in a prayer day message calling on Americans to overcome fear and welcome the stranger.

Obama in remarks Thursday to the annual National Prayer Breakfast cited multiple examples of faith communities working together to bring relief to natural disaster zones, to care for the sick and to welcome refugees.

“When Syrian refugees seek the sanctuary of our shores, it’s the faithful from synagogues, mosques, temples, and churches who welcome them, the first to offer blankets and food and open their homes,” he said to the gathering organized by a Christian group and drawing many leading U.S. lawmakers and other influential people.

A broad array of Jewish groups has backed the White House’s call to reject appeals from Republican presidential candidates to stop the intake of refugees from Syria.

Obama recounted the heroism of Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, a POW who refused to reveal to a German commandant during World War II which troops under his command were Jewish. The president spoke last week at the Israeli embassy event in Washington at which Edmonds and three others were named by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance authority, as righteous among the nations.

Edmonds ordered all U.S. troops to fall out when German commanders at the camp asked to bring out Jewish troops.

“The Nazi colonel said, ‘I asked only for the Jewish POWs,’ and said, ‘These can’t all be Jewish.’” Obama recounted. “And Master Sergeant Edmonds stood there and said, ‘We are all Jews.’ And the colonel took out his pistol and held it to the Master Sergeant’s head and said, ‘Tell me who the Jews are.’ And he repeated, ‘We are all Jews.’”

Obama went on to recount a recent meeting with Rami Nashashibi, a Muslim in Chicago, who wondered the day after militant Islamist terrorists massacred 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in December, whether it was safe to pray while watching over his daughter in a playground.

“And he thought of all the times he had told her the story of the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Robert Marx, and 700 other people marched to that very same park, enduring hatred and bigotry, dodging rocks and bottles, and hateful words, in order to challenge Chicago housing segregation, and to ask America to live up to our highest ideals,” Obama said. Nashashibi put out his prayer rug and prayed.

Marx, in 1966 the director of the Chicago Jewish Federation, wrote an anguished letter to his Jewish constituents explaining why he felt compelled to march with King through a Chicago neighborhood violently resisting integration.

“I can’t imagine a moment in which that young American sergeant expressed his Christianity more profoundly than when, confronted by his own death, he said ‘We are all Jews’,” Obama said to applause. “I can’t imagine a clearer expression of Jesus’s teachings. I can’t imagine a better expression of the peaceful spirit of Islam than when a Muslim father, filled with fear, drew from the example of a Baptist preacher and a Jewish rabbi to teach his children what God demands.”

Obama mosque visit sends message of standing for religious diversity


An Orthodox Union official said a visit by President Barack Obama to a Baltimore mosque was an appropriate message embracing diversity.

“George W. Bush went to a mosque a few days after 9-11 to send the message the United States should stand by principles of religious diversity and religious freedom for all faiths,” Nathan Diament, the umbrella body’s Washington director, told JTA in an interview. “It’s appropriate for President Obama to send a similar message just as he sends to synagogues and churches.”

Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore on Wednesday – his first to a U.S. mosque during his presidency — in a pointed bid to counter anti-Muslim rhetoric by Donald Trump, the billionaire real estate magnate who is one of the front-runners in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

“An attack on one religion is an attack on all religions,” Obama said in his remarks.

Diament noted that Obama’s visit comes on the eve of his annual address to the National Prayer Breakfast, which is organized by a Christian group. Last May, Jewish American Heritage Month, Obama delivered remarks at Adas Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in Washington, D.C.

Holocaust remembrance speeches: How Obama and Netanyahu’s worldviews differ


President Barack Obama spoke Wednesday evening at the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He exchanged warm greetings with Ambassador Ron Dermer, who noted that the speech was unprecedented. (Folks present said the last time a president visited the embassy was in 1995, when Bill Clinton signed the condolence book after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination — but there was no speech.)

The greetings seemed genuinely warm. The embassy speech is the culmination of a series of events: last November’s Washington, D.C., summit between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, more recent meetings between Netanyahu and top Obama aides, a revolving door of senior U.S. officials visiting Israel and accelerated talk of a generous new U.S. defense assistance package to Israel. The cumulative effect is to make it clear that the leaders are moving beyond last year’s loud arguments over the Iran nuclear deal and bitterness resulting from the collapse in 2014 of U.S.-convened Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

But here’s the thing: Even in comity, profound differences are evident in how each administration views the world. Consider the messages Obama and Dermer conveyed in their respective speeches Wednesday. Obama appealed for universal tolerance; Dermer heralded the triumph of Jewish self-defense.

Here’s Obama, and note the subtle nod, highlighted here, to the ethnic and religious divisions sowed by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump:

Even as the Holocaust is unique, a crime without parallel in history, the seeds of hate that gave rise to the Shoah — the ignorance that conspires with arrogance, the indifference that betrays compassion — those seeds have always been with us. They have found root across cultures, and across faiths, and across generations. The ambassador mentioned the story of Cain and Abel. It’s deep within us. Too often, especially in times of change, especially in times of anxiety and uncertainty, we are too willing to give into a base desire to find someone else — someone different — to blame for our struggles …

And so we’re called to live in a way that shows that we’ve actually learned from our past. And that means rejecting indifference. It means cultivating a habit of empathy, and recognizing ourselves in one another; to make common cause with the outsider, the minority, whether that minority is Christian or Jew, whether it is Hindu or Muslim, or a nonbeliever; whether that minority is native born or immigrant; whether they’re Israeli or Palestinian. It means taking a stand against bigotry in all its forms, and rejecting our darkest impulses and guarding against tribalism as the only value in our communities and in our politics.

Now hear out Dermer, who spoke before Obama, but who appeared to anticipate the president’s take on the Holocaust, and who then articulated his own view:

Seventy-one years after the liberation of Auschwitz, we still try to make some sense of the Holocaust. We still try to learn some lesson that will shine light in the darkness. For some, the Holocaust represents the nadir of man’s inhumanity to man — and its primary lesson is to be ever vigilant against racism, xenophobia and intolerance. For others, the Holocaust shows what can happen when extremist ideologies come to power — and its primary lesson is to always safeguard the cornerstones of a free society that protect the rights of all.

For me, the Holocaust was the attempt to wipe out the Jewish people — and its primary lesson is for the Jewish people to never be powerless against our enemies. That is why like many Jews, I take great comfort in the rebirth of a sovereign Jewish state in our ancestral homeland, in the Jewish people once again having a voice, a refuge, and most importantly, the power to defend ourselves.

Then there is the way each man perceives the Righteous among the Nations, four of whom were honored during the ceremony. Obama casts righteous gentiles who saved JEws from the Holocaust as embracing a universal humanity; Dermer lauds them for their particular devotion to Jews.

Obama:

And may we all strive to live up to their noble example, to be the Lamed Vovniks of our generation, to do our part to sustain each other and to embrace the humanity that we share, and in so doing, save our world. May the memory of the lost be a blessing. And as nations and individuals, may we always strive be among the Righteous.

Dermer:

You know, the Jewish people are an ancient people with a very long memory. We forget neither our most wicked enemies nor our most righteous friends. Tonight, the names of your four esteemed relatives join the names of Oscar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg and other Righteous Among the Nations to become a permanent part of our nation’s heritage, to be remembered by our people for generations and generations to come.

So, is the U.S.-Israel relationship doomed? Not at all. In fact, eight years into the Obama-Netanyahu era, what both sides might finally be recognizing is that the other is different, and you know what, it’s all good: Israel is not a little America, America is not Israel writ large. Each has its own political and social ethos.

The triumph of the evening may be that Dermer was able to identify how Obama — the “for some” and the “for others” in his remarks — understands the Holocaust, and yet not dismiss his view. Dermer’s particularist understanding of the Holocaust as necessitating Jewish self-defense does not diminish Obama’s call for universal tolerance. The two views can coexist.

WATCH: President Obama at Righteous Among Nations Ceremony


President Obama delivered remarks at the Righteous Among Nations Award Ceremony at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. This is the first time this ceremony has been held in the U.S. 

 
READ THE FULL TEXT:

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Good evening.  Erev Tov.

The Talmud teaches that if a person destroys one life, it is as if they’ve destroyed an entire world, and if a person saves one life, it is as if they’ve saved an entire world.

What an extraordinary honor to be with you as we honor four Righteous individuals whose courage is measured in the lives they saved — one child, one refugee, one comrade at a time — and who, in so doing, helped save our world.

I deliver a lot of speeches.  Very rarely am I so humbled by the eloquence that has preceded me — not just in words, but in the acts that we commemorate today.

To my dear friend, Steven Spielberg, thanks for your moving and generous words.  You spoke of the importance of finding your voice and using it for good, and I know that your work — whether a masterpiece like Schindler’s List or the stories that you have so persistently preserved through the Shoah Foundation — is deeply personal.  Steven once said that the story of the Shoah is the story that he was born to tell, rooted in those childhood memories that he just gave you a taste of — the relatives lost, the stories you heard from your family.  And, Steven, the whole world is grateful that you found your voice, and for the good that you’ve done with that voice.  It will endure for generations.  And so, on behalf of all of us, we are grateful.

To Ambassador and Mrs. Dermer, to Nina Totenberg, our friends from the Israeli Embassy and Yad Vashem — thank you so much for hosting us today.

Let me just add tonight that our thoughts are also with former Israeli President Shimon Peres.  I had the opportunity to speak with Shimon earlier this week.  I thanked him for his friendship, which has always meant so much to me, personally.  And I thanked him, once again, for the shining example of his leadership.  With his extraordinary life — in the Haganah, and as a founding father of the State of Israel, a statesman who has never given up on peace, an embodiment of the great alliance between our two nations — Shimon inspires us all.  And this evening we speak for all of us — Israelis, Americans, people around the world — in wishing him a full and speedy recovery.

I also want to just note the presence of two of our outstanding senators from the great state of Tennessee.  I know that it’s rare where you have such a extraordinary native of the state being honored in this way, but I think it’s also worth noting that this represents the bipartisan and steadfast support of members of Congress for the security and prosperity of the state of Israel.  And they act on that every single day.

To the survivors, families of the Righteous and those they saved, to all the distinguished guests:  We gather to honor the newest of the Righteous Among the Nations and make real the call to “never forget,” not just on this day of remembrance, but for all days and for all time. 

And at moments like this, as I listened to the extraordinary stories of the four that we honor, memories come rushing back of the times that I’ve encountered the history and the horror of the Shoah — growing up, hearing the stories of my great uncle who helped liberate Ohrdruf, part of Buchenwald, and who returned home so shaken by the suffering that he had seen that my grandmother would tell me he did not speak to anyone for six months, just went up in his attic, couldn’t fully absorb the horror that he had witnessed.

Then having the opportunity to go to Buchenwald myself with my dear friend, Elie Wiesel, and seeing the ovens, the Little Camp where he was held as a boy.  Standing with survivors in the Old Warsaw Ghetto.  And then the extraordinary honor of walking through Yad Vashem with Rabbi Lau and seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the lost, of blessed memory.  And then taking my own daughters to visit the Holocaust Museum — because our children must know this chapter of our history, and that we must never repeat it.

The four lives we honor tonight make a claim on our conscience, as well as our moral imagination.  We hear their stories, and we are forced to ask ourselves, under the same circumstances, how would we act?  How would we answer God’s question, where are you?  Would we show the love of Walery and Maryla Zbijewski?  There, in Warsaw, they could have been shot for opening their home to a five-year-old girl.  Yet they cared for her like one of their own, gave her safety and shelter and moments of warmth, of family and music — a shield from the madness outside until her mother could return.

Would we have the extraordinary compassion of Lois Gunden?  She wrote that she simply hoped to “add just another ray of love to the lives of these youngsters” who had already endured so much.  And by housing and feeding as many Jewish children as she could, her ray of love always shone through, and still burns within the families of those she saved.

Would we have the courage of Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds? I know your dad said he was just doing his job, but he went above and beyond the call of duty, and so did all those who joined in that line.  Faced with a choice of giving up his fellow soldiers or saving his own life, Roddie looked evil in the eye and dared a Nazi to shoot.  His moral compass never wavered.  He was true to his faith, and he saved some 200 Jewish American soldiers as a consequence.  It’s an instructive lesson, by the way, for those of us Christians.  I cannot imagine a greater expression of Christianity than to say, I, too, am a Jew.

And I ask these questions because, even as the Holocaust is unique, a crime without parallel in history, the seeds of hate that gave rise to the Shoah — the ignorance that conspires with arrogance, the indifference that betrays compassion — those seeds have always been with us.  They have found root across cultures, and across faiths, and across generations.  The Ambassador mentioned the story of Cain and Abel.  It's deep within us.  Too often, especially in times of change, especially in times of anxiety and uncertainty, we are too willing to give into a base desire to find someone else — someone different — to blame for our struggles.

Here, tonight, we must confront the reality that around the world, anti-Semitism is on the rise.  We cannot deny it.  When we see some Jews leaving major European cities — where their families have lived for generations — because they no longer feel safe; when Jewish centers are targeted from Mumbai to Overland Park, Kansas; when swastikas appear on college campuses — when we see all that and more, we must not be silent.

An attack on any faith is an attack on all of our faiths.  It is an attack on that Golden Rule at the heart of so many faiths — that we ought to do unto others as we would have done to us.  For Americans, in particular, we should understand that it’s an attack on our diversity, on the very idea that people of different backgrounds can live together and thrive together.  Which is why — your father was right — we are all Jews.  Because anti-Semitism is a distillation, an expression of an evil that runs through so much of human history, and if we do not answer that, we do not answer any other form of evil.  When any Jew anywhere is targeted just for being Jewish, we all have to respond as Roddie Edmonds did — “We are all Jews.”

We know that we’ll never be able to wipe out hatred from every single mind.  We won't entirely erase the scourge of anti-Semitism.  But like the Righteous, we must do everything we can. All of us have a responsibility.

Certainly government has a responsibility.  As President, I’ve made sure that the United States is leading the global fight against anti-Semitism.  And it’s why, with Israel and countries around the world, we organized the first United Nations General Assembly meeting on anti-Semitism.  It’s why we’ve urged other nations to dedicate a special envoy to this threat, as we have.

It’s why, when a statue of an anti-Semitic leader from World War II was planned in Hungary, we led the charge to convince their government to reverse course.  This was not a side note to our relations with Hungary, this was central to maintaining a good relationship with the United States, and we let them know.

It’s why, when voices around the world veer from criticism of a particular Israeli policy to an unjust denial of Israel’s right to exist, when Israel faces terrorism, we stand up forcefully and proudly in defense of our ally, in defense of our friend, in defense of the Jewish State of Israel.  America’s commitment to Israel’s security remains, now and forever, unshakeable.  And I've said this before — it would be a fundamental moral failing if America broke that bond.

All nations that prize diversity and tolerance and pluralism must speak out whenever and wherever Jews and other religious minorities are attacked.  In recent years, we’ve seen leaders in France, Germany, and Great Britain stand strongly against anti-Semitism.  In Israel, President Rivlin has spoken eloquently about the need for tolerance and acceptance among all Israelis — Jewish and Arab.

Meanwhile, governments have an obligation to care for the  survivors of the Shoah — because no one who endured that horror should have to scrape by in their golden years.  So, with our White House initiative, we’re working to improve care for Holocaust survivors in need here in the United States.  And with the compensation fund we helped create, claims are finally being paid that even more Jews deported from France during the Holocaust, including survivors here in America, can benefit from.

But the task before us does not fall on government alone.  Every faith community has a responsibility.  Just as all religions speak out against those who try to twist their faith to justify terrorism and violence, just as all faiths need to speak out when interpretations of their religion veer in an ugly direction, so, too, must they speak out against those who use their faith to justify bias against Jews, or people of any faith.

We know that there were Muslims — from Albanians to Arabs  — who protected Jews from Nazis.  In Morocco, leaders from Muslim-majority countries around the world just held a summit on protecting religious minorities, including Jews and Christians.  His Holiness Pope Francis has spoken forcefully against anti-Semitism, saying, “Every human being, as a creature of God, is our brother, regardless of his origins or religious beliefs.”  These are the voices we must heed.  And anyone who claims to be a religious leader must project that vision, that truth.

And finally, all of us have a responsibility to speak out, and to teach what’s right to our children, and to examine our own hearts.  That’s the lesson of the Righteous we honor today — the lesson of the Holocaust itself:   Where are you?  Who are you?  That's the question that the Holocaust poses to us.  We have to consider even in moments of peril, even when we might fear for our own lives, the fact that none of us are powerless.  We always have a choice.  And today, for most of us, standing up against intolerance doesn’t require the same risks that those we honor today took.  It doesn’t require imprisonment or that we face down the barrel of a gun.  It does require us to speak out. It does require us to stand firm.  We know that evil can flourish if we stand idly by.

And so we’re called to live in a way that shows that we’ve actually learned from our past.  And that means rejecting indifference.  It means cultivating a habit of empathy, and recognizing ourselves in one another; to make common cause with the outsider, the minority, whether that minority is Christian or Jew, whether it is Hindu or Muslim, or a nonbeliever; whether that minority is native born or immigrant; whether they’re Israeli or Palestinian.

It means taking a stand against bigotry in all its forms, and rejecting our darkest impulses and guarding against tribalism as the only value in our communities and in our politics.  It means heeding the lesson repeated so often in the Torah:  To welcome the stranger, for we were once strangers, too.  That’s how we never forget — not simply by keeping the lessons of the Shoah in our memories, but by living them in our actions.  As the book of Deuteronomy teaches us, “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof” — “Justice, Justice you shall pursue.”

I want to close with what I’m told is a Jewish legend.  It’s said that within every generation there are 36 virtuous individuals — individuals so honorable, so filled with compassion, that their good works sustain the very existence of the world.  They are called Lamed Vovniks, and without them, society crumbles, according to the legend.  We don’t know who they are.  They’re entirely indistinguishable, ordinary people — like Walery and Maryla and Lois and Roddie.  You wouldn’t necessarily recognize them in a crowd.  But I believe that their generation — the generation of Schindler and Wallenberg and Karski — demanded a lot more than 36.  It called for more than 26,000 Righteous Among the Nations.  It called for the millions of heroes who did not go quietly and who stood up and fought back.

And may we all strive to live up to their noble example, to be the Lamed Vovniks of our generation, to do our part to sustain each other and to embrace the humanity that we share, and in so doing, save our world.  May the memory of the lost be a blessing. And as nations and individuals, may we always strive be among the Righteous.

God bless you.  God bless the United States of America.  And God bless the State of Israel.  (Applause.)

Sanders, Obama to hold Oval Office meeting


President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at the White House.

There will be “no formal agenda” for Wednesday morning’s Oval Office meeting, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement, adding that the meeting was first discussed in December.

Polls show Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont running in the Democratic primaries, and Hillary Rodham Clinton running neck and neck in the Iowa caucuses, which will be held Monday. Clinton served as Obama’s secretary of state during his first term in office after losing the Democratic primary to him in 2008.

Obama discussed the candidates in an interview with Politico’s OffMessage podcast released Monday.

“Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete long shot and just letting loose,” Obama said. “I think Hillary came in with both the privilege — and burden — of being perceived as the front-runner. … You’re always looking at the bright, shiny object that people haven’t seen before — that’s a disadvantage to her.”

Clinton and Obama have met several times since she left her position in 2013.

Obama reportedly will not endorse a candidate during the primary.

Obama says Sanders has ‘luxury’ of being long shot in Democratic race


Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has had the “luxury of being a complete long shot” so far in the race to be the U.S. Democratic presidential candidate, President Barack Obama said in an interview published by Politico on Monday.

Obama said both Sanders and Hillary Clinton, his former Secretary of State, share similar views on core issues like income inequality, but said Clinton faces the disadvantage of being well-known “in a culture in which new is always better.”

“I think Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete long shot and just letting loose,” Obama told the political news website. “I think Hillary came in with the both privilege and burden of being perceived as the front-runner.”

Obama, who won the Democratic nomination over Clinton in 2008, lauded her experience, saying it will help her govern if she wins but described her campaign as “cautious.”

“Her strengths, which are the fact that she’s extraordinarily experienced, and, you know, wicked smart and knows every policy inside and out, sometimes could make her more cautious and her campaign more prose than poetry,” he said.

The interview was the first time Obama discussed in detail the Democratic race and comes just ahead of the first contests to pick a nominee for the November election: Iowa, on Feb. 1, and New Hampshire, on Feb. 9.

He did not explicitly endorse a candidate, and mentioned only once in passing former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, who trails in polls.

Sanders has surged in recent polls in Iowa and leads Clinton in New Hampshire. Still, Clinton holds the edge nationally, with nearly 56 percent support to Sanders' 36 percent in the most recent Reuters/Ipsos polling.

Still Obama, asked whether Sanders reminded him of himself, told Politico: “I don’t think that's true.”

Sanders' campaign manager Jeff Weaver on Monday also rejected the idea that Sanders is a repeat of Obama, although he pointed to similarities in their campaigns' momentum and the large crowds their rallies have attracted.

“They're obviously very different people,” Weaver told CNN.

Obama said if Sanders wins Iowa or New Hampshire, he will face the intense scrutiny the media has long given Clinton, subjecting him and his policies “to a rigor that hasn't happened yet.”

Obama also said Sanders would need to broaden his message to continue to succeed.

“I will say that the longer you go in the process, the more you’re going to have to pass a series of hurdles that the voters are going to put in front of you, because the one thing everybody understands is that [with] this job right here, you don’t have the luxury of just focusing on one thing,” he said.

Obama to speak at Righteous Among the Nations ceremony at Israeli embassy


President Barack Obama will speak at a ceremony honoring Righteous Among the Nations at the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., a sign of warmed ties between Obama and Israel’s government.

Obama’s appearance at the Jan. 27 ceremony, marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day and conducted together with Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial authority, is the latest signal that the Obama administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are putting behind them tensions created by the Iran nuclear deal.

An official ceremony for Righteous Among the Nations has never before been held in the U.S.

“It is a great privilege to recognize, on behalf of the Jewish state, the heroism of those to whom the Jewish people owe the highest debt of gratitude,” Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer said in a statement. “I also deeply appreciate President Obama’s acceptance of our invitation to speak at this historic event. It will be a worthy tribute to the worthiest among us.”

Ties between the U.S. and Israeli governments were frayed during the months leading to the finalization of the sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal between Iran and six major powers, which Netanyahu vigorously opposed.

The deal went through late last year and was formally launched last week. In recent months, the sides have made an effort to show that while they still disagree on the deal, they are back to working closely together. Netanyahu and Obama had a friendly summit in November in Washington.

Netanyahu met this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with Secretary of State John Kerry, the Iran deal’s lead champion, and Vice President Joe Biden. All parties said the meetings were productive. Bilateral negotiations to continue and to expand the U.S. defense assistance package to Israel have intensified in recent weeks.

“I think he recognized that the fight’s over and we can move on,” Kerry told the media this week after meeting with Netanyahu.

Dermer’s invitation and Obama’s acceptance is notable in itself. The ambassador was deeply involved in making the case in Congress against the Iran deal, and reports have circulated that some administration officials prefer not to deal with him. Netanyahu has stood by his envoy, and a number of Democrats in Congress, including backers of the deal, have praised him for striving to maintain good relations with the caucus despite differences over the deal.

Yad Vashem is the authority that confers the title Righteous Among the Nations upon non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust

The ceremony will recognize Roddie Edmonds, an army sergeant who while being held captive in a German prisoner of war camp, refused orders from a German commander to identify Jewish POWs under his command; Lois Gunden, an American teacher in France who made the children’s home she ran a safe haven for Jewish children, and Walery and Maryla Zbijewski, a Polish couple who cared for a Jewish girl who had managed to flee with her mother from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Obama says Iran has pledged to help find Robert Levinson


Iran will “deepen its coordination” with the United States to locate a Jewish-American man missing since 2007, President Barack Obama said.

“Iran has agreed to deepen our coordination as we work to locate Robert Levinson, missing from Iran for more than eight years,” Obama said, speaking Sunday from the White House.

Levinson, 68, of Coral Springs, Florida, has been missing since disappearing from Iran’s Kish Island during what has since been revealed as a rogue CIA operation. His family told the media they were “devastated” that he was not among the five Americans released this weekend as part of a U.S.-Iran prisoner exchange that marked the launch of the nuclear deal.

“Even as we rejoice in the safe return of others we will never forget about Bob,” Obama said. “Each and every day but especially today our hearts are with the Levinson family and we will never rest until their family is whole again.”

The Iran nuclear deal was launched formally Saturday as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, confirmed that Iran had met its nuclear restriction requirements. The United States and the European Union responded by suspending an array of nuclear-related sanctions on the country.

“Engaging directly with the Iranian government on a sustained basis, for the first time in decades, has created a unique opportunity, a window, to resolve important issues,” Obama said.

“We’ve now closed off every single path Iran had to building a bomb,” he said. “We’ll know if Iran ever tries to break out.”

The White House website posted abundant material defending the deal, along with a video animation depicting all paths to a nuclear weapon as being choked off, accompanied by triumphant swells of a string orchestra.

Obama insisted that the United States remains vigilant in confronting Iranian mischief in the region, addressing a key anxiety expressed by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Even as we implement the nuclear deal and welcome our Americans home we recognize that there remain profound differences between the United States and Iran,” Obama said. “We remain steadfast in opposing Iran’s destabilizing behavior elsewhere, including its threats against Israel and our Gulf partners and its support for violent proxies in Syria and Yemen.”

Netanyahu in a statement Sunday simultaneously reiterated his skepticism of Obama’s ability to make good on that pledge while promising to vigilantly monitor Iran’s compliance.

“Israel’s policy is exactly as it has been – not to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons,” he said. “What is clear is that Iran will now have more resources to divert to terrorism and its aggression in the region and around the world, and Israel is prepared to deal with any threat.”

Obama also said that the he would sanction Iran for its recent ballistic missile tests. Congress and pro-Israel groups had urged him to do so, but Obama initially slowed down such sanctions. Subsequent to the release this weekend of the prisoners, it was revealed that the delay was in part not to scuttle the exchange.