Obama Meets the press, calls for “persistence” in the Middle East

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

There was plenty of Mideast news this week, starting with the dramatic decision by Labor Party leader Ehud Barak (this Barak v. Barack business is going to hard on journalists who trust their spell checkers)  to join a new government led by Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu.  But you’d never know it by listening to President Barack Obama’s prime-time press conference last night.

As expected, the focus was overwhelmingly domestic; the top goals were selling his $3.6 trillion budget outline and his financial bailout plans and reassuring a frightened, angry public.

He delved into the Middle East only once, and if he was sending signals, they were about as unrevealing as they could be.

Here’s the transcript of his comments on the subject:

QUESTION: Mr. President, you came to office pledging to work for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. How realistic do you think those hopes are now, given the likelihood of a prime minister who is not fully signed up to a two-state solution and a foreign minister who has been accused of insulting Arabs?

OBAMA: It’s not easier than it was, but I think it’s just as necessary.

We don’t yet know what the Israeli government is going to look like, and we don’t yet know what the future shape of Palestinian leadership is going to be comprised of. What we do know is this: that the status quo is unsustainable, that it is critical for us to advance a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in their own states with peace and security.

And by assigning George Mitchell the task of working as special envoy, what we’ve signaled is that we’re going to be serious from day one in trying to move the parties in a direction that acknowledges that reality.

How effective these negotiations may be, I think we’re going to have to wait and see. But, you know, we — we were here for St. Patrick’s Day, and you’ll recall that we had what had been previously sworn enemies celebrating here in this very room.

You know, leaders from the two sides of Northern Ireland that, you know, a couple of decades ago — or even a decade ago — people would have said could never achieve peace, and here they were, jointly appearing, and talking about their commitment, even in the face of violent provocation.

And what that tells me is that, if you stick to it, if you are persistent, then — then these problems can be dealt with.

That whole philosophy of persistence, by the way, is one that I’m going to be emphasizing again and again in the months and years to come as long as I’m in this office. I’m a big believer in persistence.

That’s it: persistence and no status quo. Not much news here.

On Iran, he only referred to last week’s presidential video to the Iranian people.

“Some people  said, ‘Well, they did not immediately say that we’re eliminating nuclear weapons and stop funding terrorism,’” Obama said. “Well, we didn’t expect that. We expect that we’re going to make steady progress on this front.”

Translation: his administration’s Iran policy is still in formation.

One other issue with direct Jewish interest: the part of his budget proposal calling for a cut in tax deductions for charitable contributions. That has some Jewish groups, including the Orthodox Union and United Jewish Communities, upset because they fear a drop in giving.

On that, Obama stuck to his guns.

“I think it’s the right thing to do, where we’ve got to make some difficult choices,” he said.

He portrayed the proposal as a way of shifting more of the tax burden away from the middle class and onto the wealthy.  “People are still going to be able to make charitable contributions. It just means, if you give $100 and you’re in this tax bracket, at a certain point, instead of being able to write off 36 percent or 39 percent, you’re writing off 28 percent.”

The provision would “affect about 1 percent of the American people,” he said.

Don’t look for charitable groups hard hit by the recession to change their minds on the basis of those  comments.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.