Obama: 'Hurts' to be Accused of Being Anti-Semitic

In interview with Jewish magazine, President Obama says there is not a smidgen of evidence that he's anti-Semitic.

Elad Benari ,

Barack Obama
Barack Obama
Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90

President Barack Obama says it hurts him personally when he is accused of being anti-Semitic.

Speaking to the Forward, Obama answered “Oh, of course” when asked if those accusations hurt him.

“And there’s not a smidgen of evidence for it, other than the fact that there have been times where I’ve disagreed with a particular Israeli government’s position on a particular issue,” he continued.

“And I’ve said before, and I will continue to say, that if you care deeply about Israel, then you have an obligation to be honest about what you think, the same way you would with any friend. And we don’t do anybody, any friend, a service by just rubber-stamping whatever decisions they make, even if we think that they’re damaging in some fashion,” said Obama.

“[T]he good news,” he continued, “is that the people I’m close to, the people who know me, including people who disagree with me on this issue, would never even think about making those statements. I get probably more offended when I hear members of my administration who themselves are Jewish being attacked.”

Obama was asked by interviewer Jane Eisner how the Iran deal would prevent the Islamic Republic to use some of its sanction relief to fund terrorism in the Middle East.

“I think it’s important to recognize that the reason that Iran came to the table to negotiate a ‘no nuclear weapons’ pledge was because of unprecedented sanctions that we were able to structure,” he replied. “Congressional sanctions have been on the books for years. They have not been effective in changing Iranian behavior. What was effective was, when I came into office, our ability to mobilize vigorous multilateral support for sanctions and very vigorous enforcement of sanctions. And as a consequence, the Iranian economy really cratered. And obviously, that’s now been compounded by the severe drop in oil prices.”

“So,” he continued “by definition, they were going to get some of their own money back as part of a deal. That was their incentive to engage with the world community in the first place. It’s estimated they’ll get about $50 billion. But as we’ve said repeatedly, the bulk of those dollars they are going to have to use for propping up their economy and getting it back on an even keel.”

He admitted that with the sanctions being lifted, Iran’s economy will improve and it would work to build its military capability.

“But,” Obama added, “as I pointed out repeatedly, Iran’s annual defense budget is about $15 billion. The Gulf States, combined, spend about eight times that amount. Israel’s conventional military capacity far exceeds any Iranian capability, and you can’t compare the U.S. military to Iran. So the goal of this deal is to make sure that the one real game-changer — nuclear weapons — is taken off the table.”

“We now have a regional power that is good at asymmetric and unconventional and proxy aggression, and that’s something that we, together, can confront and stop,” he said, adding, “This is why I had Gulf countries up to Camp David to start coordinating more effectively to interdict arms shipments, to improve intelligence sharing, to support coordination of ballistic missile defense systems. And as soon as this debate is over, we will, I think, be able to invigorate what has been an ongoing conversation with the Israelis about how we can do even more to enhance the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation that we have with them, and to see, are there additional capabilities that Israel may be able to use to prevent Hezbollah, for example, from getting missiles.”

Obama added that “the sanctions have been so effective that even with that $56 billion, even with their economy potentially improving modestly as they see sanctions suspended, it’s going to take, we estimate, till 2022 for their economy to get back to where it was, where it would have been had sanctions not been imposed.”

“The reason I make this point is, is that their economy is and will continue to be in a significant hole even after sanctions relief occurs. And that’s part of the reason that we have confidence that if we work effectively with Israel and our other allies in the region that we can counteract whatever additional resources they may have militarily,” he added.

Asked whether it wouldn’t be easier to use the military option against Iran now that it is still relatively weak rather than 10 to 15 years from now, he replied, “Well, keep in mind that under the terms of this agreement, we have great confidence that not only will we have shut off the various pathways to a nuclear weapon, but we will also have installed an unprecedented verification and inspection mechanism that helps us to understand the entire nuclear production chain inside of Iran. IAEA inspectors will be there on a regular basis reporting what will be conducted on a regular basis. And we will, for the first 10 years, have maintained a one-year breakout time so that if they cheat, we’ll have ample time to catch them and call them to account. And that’s a significantly longer breakout time than exists right now, and certainly a longer breakout time than will exist if we — if Congress rejected the deal.”

“Around year 10, 11, 12, that breakout time starts shrinking again and we’re back to a situation in which they could theoretically try to dash for a bomb. But under the terms of the agreement, they will still be prohibited from having a nuclear weapon, so they would be violating international law if they dash for a bomb 15 years from now. They would still be subject to what’s called the additional protocol — a whole range of inspection mechanisms that are in place so that we would know if they were dashing for a bomb. And they will still be a military power that is far weaker than the United States — and for that matter, will be weaker than Israel,” he added.

And so, in 15 years’ time, whoever is occupying my chair here in the White House will have more information about their nuclear program, will have greater international legitimacy in the event that the President needs to initiate a strike against Iran’s nuclear program, will have the justification of them explicitly having violated international agreements that they entered into,” claimed Obama.

He rejected a question that relations between the United States and Israel has “grown toxic”, saying, “There are always going to be arguments within families and among friends. And Israel isn’t just an ally, it’s not just a friend — it’s family. The relationships between our peoples, the shared values, the shared commitment to democracy — those things are so deep that they have survived arguments in the past and they will survive this argument.”

“I think a testament to how sturdy the relationship is, is that despite this very significant policy disagreement, all the military, security, commercial, cultural cooperation that existed before this debate came up has continued unabated and will continue unabated,” he continued.

“We had already begun a discussion about how we lock in our long-term security assistance to Israel under a memorandum of understanding, and those discussions need to continue. I already mentioned that as much intelligence cooperation and sharing as we’re already doing, we need to do better if we want to stop Hezbollah from continuing to get missiles that can be trained on Tel Aviv,” said Obama.

The interview with Obama took place on Friday, the same day that Obama addressed Jewish communities throughout North America about the Iran deal and said the deal is “our best way to make sure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon. That should be our number one priority.”

Congress continues to review the deal ahead of a vote on September 17. Momentum appears to be growing in support of the deal, with Senate Democrat Tom Carper announcing Friday that he supports it, putting the pro-Obama camp at 30.  

The Democrats need 34 supporters in the Senate to uphold Obama's expected veto.

So far, only two Senate Democrats — New York's Chuck Schumer and New Jersey's Bob Menendez — have announced that they will vote against the deal, though several key Democratic senators have yet to announce their position.

Republican Bob Menendez, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee and is a leading voice against the deal, acknowledged last week that the White House lobbying campaign for the Iran nuclear deal has generated results, and said he doesn't know if opponents of the deal can prevail.