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Friday, December 9, 2016

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama reassured U.S. Jewish groups on Friday that the U.S.-Israel relationship is strong, despite differences over the nuclear deal with Iran, and called for more talks between the two governments on security cooperation.

“As soon as this particular debate is over, my hope is that the Israeli government will immediately want to rejoin conversations that we started long before about how we can continue to improve and enhance Israel’s security in a very troubled neighborhood,” Obama said during a webcast focused on the international nuclear agreement.

Obama said Washington and Israel have been in talks “for months” about getting security talks back on track, and those talks could include the next-generation missile defense and improved intelligence.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a fierce critic of the nuclear deal, in which six world powers agreed to ease economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for Tehran curtailing its nuclear program.

Netanyahu’s government, and some U.S. pro-Israel groups, have lobbied fiercely against the nuclear agreement, potentially a core foreign policy achievement of Obama’s presidency if successful.

Members of Congress have until Sept. 17 to vote on a “resolution of disapproval” of the nuclear agreement. If it passes, and survives Obama’s veto, it could cripple the deal by eliminating Obama’s ability to waive many U.S. sanctions.

U.S. Republicans are largely united against the agreement, and have allied themselves with Netanyahu’s government against it. They angered the White House earlier this year by inviting the Israeli leader to address Congress without consulting the administration.

Obama said the U.S. commitment to Israel is “sacrosanct and it is non-partisan.”

He added, “Everybody keep in mind that we’re all pro-Israel… We have to make sure that we don’t impugn people’s motives even as we have what is a very serious debate.”

As Congress has considered the nuclear agreement, announced on July 14, its supporters have denounced opponents as “war hawks” and opponents have accused supporters of betraying Israel.

The webcast was part of an intense White House campaign to bolster support for the pact, which has divided the U.S. Jewish community.

Earlier on Friday, Democrat Tom Carper of Delaware became the 30th U.S. senator to announce that he would support the nuclear deal. Supporters need 34 of the 100 senators, or 146 members of the 435-seat House, to sustain a veto.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Susan Heavey and Dan Grebler)

Photo: President Obama pauses during remarks on a nuclear deal with Iran at American University in Washington August 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst