I had just signed off my radio show on Kol Yisrael-English. It was 12:45 pm on Friday, October 14, 2016.
On any Friday, I’d be rushing off after the midday show to get home for Shabbat. This Friday was especially hectic. Yom Kippur had been just two days earlier. Sukkot was starting on Sunday night. I had to get home.
However, I was awaiting an important phone call. The call would be from the president of the United States, Barack Obama, less than a month before Donald Trump would emerge victorious over Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.
It was not to be an interview. It was a goodwill gesture arranged by a senior presidential aide with whom I had become friendly over the previous nearly eight years of the two Obama terms in the White House.
During some rather tense times between Obama and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this senior aide – who has preferred to remain anonymous – maintained ties with me via periodic phone conversations.
My connection with this official was made through a leading figure in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. It was informal: I tried to paint a picture for the Obama aide of what was going on in Israel in a way through which, based on his reactions, he was clearly being educated.
For his part, the aide provided me with tidbits of what was going on in the White House.
It was ironic. Kol Yisrael-English suffered from a lack of exposure. The aide said that he had never heard of the English service though he was familiar with Kol Yisrael.
I believe that he was so open with me because he figured that even if I were to report anything of what he told me, it wouldn’t make waves because our news service was not listened to by large numbers of influential people.
At times, our exchanges were comical. There was one of those tense moments between Obama and Netanyahu that prompted members of the White House staff to feel the need to contact US Jewish organizations to do some damage control.
However, that day was the second day of the festival of Shavuot. With no one apparently answering their phones because of the holiday, my White House aide called me.
“David, would you happen to know why no Jewish organizations are answering the phone today?” he asked.
“Don’t you have advisers to tell you that today is a Jewish holiday and that many people won’t be answering their phones?” I replied.
“So why are you answering your phone?” he asked in return.
Go explain why Israel celebrates only one day of Shavuot and the rest of the Jewish world observes two days. But I tried.
Other times, however, my chats with the aide were very serious. In fact, one such conversation ultimately led to the October 2016 discussion with the president himself.
It was Wednesday, March 9, 2016. The day before, 29-year-old American student and United States Army veteran Taylor Force was murdered in a Palestinian terror attack in Jaffa.
Not so far away, Vice President Joe Biden, on a visit to Israel, was attending an event.
I decided to call the Obama aide. This is how our conversation went.
Me: “You know all those times you’ve asked me about what it’s like to be walking or working so close to where terror attacks take place? Well, I’m wondering what you, at the White House, were thinking yesterday when you heard how close your vice president was to where the Jaffa attack took place.”
He: “Was it close?”
He: “Hmmm. Maybe I should ask the president….if I have a chance.”
Me: “I’d love it if you could.”
A few hours later, the White House official called back. “The president did not answer your question, but he was wondering if you ever make trips to Washington.”
I replied that, as far as I knew at the time, I had no plans to visit DC before the conclusion of Mr. Obama’s presidency, but “who knows?” I added. “It’s still 10 months away.”
As time went on, it became clear that I would not be making any trips to the US during that time period.
“Shame,” said the aide. “I’d get you into the White House and perhaps set up a meeting with the president.”
Had he been certain that a meeting could be arranged, I would have considered a trip just for that. In the meantime, he called me in September and asked: “How about five minutes on the phone?”
“Umm, yeah,” I said with a chuckle in my voice as though I would even consider turning down an opportunity to have a chat with a US president.
A month later, during the week of Yom Kippur, I was informed by the White House that I would, in fact, be receiving a phone call at 6 am Washington time, 1 pm in Israel, from Mr. Obama.
The guidelines were that it was just a way for this aide to express gratitude to me for our ongoing contacts. It was not an official interview, not to be recorded, and the contents were not to be publicized.
“You’ll get more out of him if you adhere to these guidelines,” said the aide. Ultimately, I was told that I could publicize details of the conversation, but only after the next president took office on January 20, 2017.
1 pm. The phone rings. First it was the aide. He just wanted to make sure that I would answer. Next thing I knew, a different voice said to me: “Hi David, this is Barack Obama.”
In my next blog installment: The conversation.