The weight on my shoulders was immense. The president of the United States was on the other end of the phone line.
On the other hand, it felt very normal.
When I had interviewed seven Israeli prime ministers during my years as a political and diplomatic correspondent, I felt butterflies each time because they were sitting right next to me or across from me in their office or the corridors of the Knesset.
On this Friday, however, I was just sitting at the same, familiar desk in the Kol Yisrael newsroom where I had spent so many hours preparing copy about the news that made Israeli history, where I had spoken on the same phone with so many movers and shakers to gain information and arrange interviews.
This time I was talking on that same phone to Barack Obama but he wasn’t staring at me. It wasn’t like those in-person encounters with the prime ministers: Shamir to Netanyahu. All I had to do on this day was cradle the phone on my right shoulder and settle into my chair.
“David, I want to thank you for being a friend to a senior member of my team. You shared many fascinating stories about life in Jerusalem and about reporting on Israel and he shared some of them with me,” the president said to me.
His personal demeanor comforted me even as I thought of those listeners who might want me to give him a piece of my mind, even as I thought of the prime minister, whose office was even asking me how I managed to receive an offer to speak to the president even as Mr. Netanyahu had been given the back door treatment.
I have flown the banner of objective journalism throughout my career, but some of the events of the Obama years had made it challenging.
When I reported in July 2015, on the eve of the announcement that the Iran nuclear deal had been reached, that a member of the US delegation was expressing “real concern for Israel’s security,” I was chided by an administration official who accused me of giving publicity to the views of a “traitor.” The US official also argued that I myself was “damaging” Israeli interests.
On the other hand, just a few months earlier, in March 2015, when I addressed audiences in the US and explained that there were those in Israel who objected to Mr. Netanyahu’s speech, against Mr. Obama’s wishes, to Congress just days earlier on the issue of the emerging Iran deal, I received raised eyebrows at best and a charge from one audience member, at worst, that I was acting against Israel’s security interests.
I was getting it from both sides.
As this whirlwind of recent history went through my head, President Obama suddenly asked me: “David, explain to me why American Jews like yourself would give up what they have and move to Israel?”
“Israel is the Jewish homeland,” I told the US president, adding that I loved America for molding who I am and for the opportunities it has given Jews.
“Many of us pray toward Jerusalem each day. Many of us yearned during centuries of persecution to see Jerusalem. And many of us feel that given the opportunity we have now, we should be living here, and I am proud of the strong bond between the United States and Israel,” I said.
He seemed to be well-versed on King David, King Solomon, and the Temple.
“I want the modern State of Israel to have peace,” said the president. “Before I leave office, I would like to bring a resolution to the UN Security Council that would set parameters for Israeli-Palestinian peace, stating the guidelines for the principles of a peace agreement, a Palestinian state, the final status of Jerusalem, and overall permanent borders based on the 1967 lines.”
He also said that such a resolution should include a timeframe – he suggested 18-24 months from passage of the resolution as a possibility – by which point an agreement should be concluded.
Obama added: “I know that much has been made of my relationship with the prime minister. I want the Israeli people to see that I can bring forward a resolution that would ultimately give them a better future.”
“Mr. President,” I replied, “If your intention is to show that your problem was with Mr. Netanyahu and not the Israeli people, perhaps you should first check with left-wing parties in the Knesset, at least among those known as Zionist parties, whether they would support such a resolution. They support voting Netanyahu out of office. They might very well support your parameters. But I have a sneaking suspicion that they wouldn’t support a dictate from the UN Security Council. Perhaps you should have your embassy people check this out.”
The president and I discussed other harder and softer issues and even concluded our chat by talking baseball: his Chicago White Sox vs. my New York Mets.
After the Knesset reconvened following the Jewish holiday season, the White House senior aide called me and told me that the US Embassy in Tel Aviv had held discussions with parliamentary factions and that “even Meretz” had objected to a “UN dictate.”
“They said that Israel is happy to work with the US serving as a facilitator but does not want the international community making fateful decisions for Israel,” according to the aide, quoting a “couple of party leaders” as stating that “the sustainability of a peace agreement is dependent upon an Israeli government deciding for itself what is best for its own people.”
Said the aide: “The president has shelved the resolution.”