Exclusive - Wiesel To Obama: Pressure On Israel Is Not The Way

In exclusive Jewish Week interview, Nobel laureate says Israel susceptible to ‘seduction.’

05/06/10
Editor and Publisher
Photo Galleria: 

Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel says that in his private lunch meeting with President Obama at the White House on Tuesday, the president “wanted me to understand” his commitment to Israel. And the Holocaust survivor and memoirist wanted to share with his host (also a Nobel Peace Prize winner) how important Israel, and particularly Jerusalem, is to the Jewish people.

“I had a good feeling” about the long lunch, Wiesel, 81, told The Jewish Week the next day in the first one-on-one interview he granted since the lunch. “There was no small talk; it was all substance,” he said of the meeting, with just the two men in the room. “I spoke about what Jerusalem means to me. I said the Muslims have Mecca, and we have Jerusalem.”

He said that when he pointed out that Israel cannot sustain another catastrophe, the president “reiterated his total commitment to Israel and its security.”

The meeting was widely described in the media as part of the president’s effort to alleviate the concerns of, if not woo back, the pro-Israel community here, as well as the government in Jerusalem. Israeli officials are said to be distrustful of Obama after the very public criticism it received for announcing the building of new homes in east Jerusalem during Vice President Biden’s visit to the region in early March.

Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to discuss the upcoming proximity talks with the Palestinians, and several high-level administration officials addressed national Jewish organizations this week.

But Wiesel said the timing of his private lunch with the president was proposed several months ago, and that the two men have had a very respectful relationship for several years.

Obama invited Wiesel to accompany him to the Buchenwald concentration camp last June 5, and the Holocaust survivor recalled that he was touched when the president asked him to “have the last word” that day. He spoke extemporaneously of his father’s death when they were together at Buchenwald, and Wiesel was just a teenager.

In The Jewish Week interview, Wiesel expressed disappointment with those in the Jewish community accusing Obama of anti-Israel sentiments. But he said he tries to distance himself from partisan politics.

“I am a free man,” he said several times, adding at one point: “I don’t like to be used.”

He said he is not afraid to speak out, noting that he criticized President Reagan to his face, publicly, 25 years ago, urging him not to visit Bitburg, a German cemetery that contained Nazi graves.

Wiesel said his recent full-page ad in several major newspapers here and in Israel extolling Jerusalem was written as “a declaration of love.” In the ad, he wrote that “for me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics.

“I felt the need,” he said, adding that he was not asked to compose the ad, and did not coordinate it with anyone else. (Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, published full-page ads in some of the same newspapers that week critical of Obama’s recent treatment of Israel.)

Wiesel pointed out that his Jerusalem statement was “not a letter to, or against, the president, and was not a political act” but rather a personal tribute to the history of the holy city and its deep ties to the Jewish people.

But the letter asserted that “pressure will not produce a solution” and that it would be a mistake to “tackle” the future of Jerusalem first in peace talks. “Why not leave the most difficult, the most sensitive issue,” he wrote, for a time when some trust had been established between the Israeli and Palestinian people?

Wiesel said he wrote that because he had heard, while visiting Israel during Passover, that the U.S. planned to have the two parties deal with Jerusalem first when they resumed talks.

“It worked,” he said with a smile, saying the White House reassured him that would not be the case.

While Wiesel downplayed his role as a diplomat — “Who am I to influence high-level negotiations?” — he said his advice for Obama was not to push Israel, suggesting that Israelis know how to resist pressure but may be more susceptible to “seduction.”

As for advice for the Palestinian Authority? “Change the textbooks” that demonize Israel and Jews, he said.

Wiesel said he is familiar with the criticism of his Jerusalem statement, including a full-page ad by former Israeli cabinet minister Yossi Sarid, sponsored by the J Street Education Fund, but he had no public response.

Sarid’s tone was somewhat mocking, portraying Wiesel as naïve.

He charged that Wiesel had not taken into account the negative treatment of Arabs in Jerusalem, and wrote that “nothing in our world is above politics” and that Wiesel’s description of Jerusalem “confuse(s) fundamental issues and confound(s) the reader.”

In response, Wiesel said only that Sarid “had a right to say what he said.”

Describing the state of Jewish life today, Wiesel said it was “unique in Jewish history,” with its combination of “hope, power and anguish,” a time when Israel is both flourishing economically and vulnerable existentially.

He repeated his assertion that Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who threatens to annihilate Israel, should be arrested and tried at The Hague for crimes against humanity.

“Maybe there was a time like this after the Churban,” he said, referring to the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem,” but perhaps not since then.

“We carry our memories,” he said, “into every minute of our being.”

 

 E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

Read Gary's "Between the Lines" blog here, and be sure to check out the Jewish Week's Facebook page and become a fan!

You can also follow the Jewish Week on Twitter: start here.

Last Update:

05/11/2010 - 17:22

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

T'fillin -- Elie doesn't bother with it any more. At least that's what he said to a group I was in. So, I don't care what he said to him. Irrelevant.
Wiesel gets dinner Netanyahu gets the bums rush Dalai Lama has to leave through back door etc., etc. ,insulting gifts,presents returned but ignore islam and its tenets that he knows darn well-- a taqiyya'd president from anon Quote....The arabs want only one thing....the complete annihilation of the Jews and Israel... Unquote even a halfwit can see this but in islam this is eminently acceptable
The Jews ought not to believe Obama because his statements about supporting Israel are disingenuous! He says these things only to get Jewish support, as he did before the elections. After he was in office he threw himself at the feet of the Moslem world giving hope to the radical elements in Islam, which are numerous. Obama's treatment of Israel and of Prime Minister Natanyahu are totally unacceptable. But they represent his true self, having been indoctrinated for 20 years by Jeremiah Wright. Wiesel was much too kind to Obama. As a survivor, Wiesel should know to trust someone not by their words, but by their deeds. EPH, Teaneck, NJ
Submitted by Jacob S. Rand MD Thursday 05/06/2010 Precedent: Between 1846 and 1848 the United States by force acquired the territory now known as California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico. After World War II we acquired several islands in the South Pacific. Israel fought wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and acquired the territories known as Palestine. However, Israel is willing to give up Palestine, in favor of a two state solution. 20% of the population of Israel is Arab. If certain Jews wish to live in Palestine shouldn't they be allowed to do so? As far as East Jerusalem is concerned, why aren't the Palestinians willing to sit down and have direct talks about the subject? Do you know the answer? I think I know the answer, but I would like to hear from others before I give mine.
"Change the textbooks!" This should receive more publicity, greater emphasis in this discourse. And, also, Wiesel might have added, "Eliminate the Arabic children's TV programming that vilifies the Jews and celebrates suicide bombing and martyrdom."
The problem is that no one, but no one, especially the American Politicians, understand the Arab mentality....Having lived in arab lands for many years I've come to understand that the palestinians do not want peace at any price. If you look back into history none, but none of the arabs, looked to Jerusalem but always to Mecca. It's only since the 1967 war with Israel that the PLO (most whose leaders came from Tunisia, Lybia,Egypt but not Palestine) as it was called before the establishment of the State of Israel. The arabs want only one thing....the complete annihilation of the Jews and Israel.....Just look at the map. Israel is surrounded on all sides by hostile arab nations (none of whom having anything in common with democratic ideals) and the arabs therefore feel threatened by a democracy...... If Israel is left to be destroyed because of our political correctness then America is next....... wcg Delray Beach
When there is a split between Fatah and Hamas, how can Peace negotiations take place? You have to wonder if Mr. Wiesel has lost something on his fastball since the the time that he courageously and correctly stood up to Reagan's visit to Bitburg.
Most American Jews are not aware of the fact that Wiesel is not well thought of in Israel by the country's oldtimers because they consider him to be something of a self-promoter who turned his back on Israe to become an international celebrity. After the warm Wiesel became a journalist for the right wing Betar youth newspaper and evidently, an Israeli, but then decided it would do more for his career to appear in the US as a stateless person and the representative of those who survived Auschwitz. The right-wing considered him to be a slick opportunist while those from the left of center like Sarid condemned him because of his refusal to say a word of criticism concernng Israel's crimes against the Palestinians.
Dear Mr. "Anonimous", I don't know how to enter my name. That's why I am entering it here: MARIO BEHAR ... My Reply: When you talk about "Israel's crimes against the Palestinians", why don't you try to compare "those" with the real CRIMES Arabs commit against Arabs, Muslims in general against Muslims, and specifically Palestinian Arabs against Palestinian Arabs: suicide bombings every day or so, "honor" killings every now and then, liquidation of "traitors" on the street, or thrown from highrises w/out due legal process, etc., etc. ... Why do you measure Israel and the Jews with a different [special and always blatantly anti-Semitic] standard?
the importance and centrality of Jerusalem to the jewish people is undeniable and any major decisions on the final status of the city and changes in Israeli sovereignty will only take place in the last stages of the negotiations. However that does not mean that until then Israel can take over houses in arab neighborhoods and evict their residents who have been living there fifty years. If Israel thinks that Jews can return to homes that were Jewish before l948 then arabs should be allowed to return to their homes in Jewish west Jerusalem neighborhoods where their families lived before l948. What is clear is that Israel must stop building and taking over homes in what are clearly arab sections of the city and of course should be able to continue building in areas that are totally Jewish neighborhoods.
There is nothing ARAB in Israel,,,,only Arabs living in Israel,,,,and in much better conditions than anywhere else in the Arab and/or muslim world.Two billion muslims have ,to date ,not been able to achieve what the jews have achieved throughout history,therefore making these muslims jealous,mean,backward and detrimental to themselves as well as to the world at large. The remedy for Islam,,can only come from evolution within.Stop blaming the jews for the problems that Islam has created.
Dear Mr. "Anonimous", I don't know how to enter my name. That's why I am entering it here: MARIO BEHAR ... My Reply: Except for one abandoned in the 1920-30s Arab cemetery, there is no such thing as "their [Arab's] homes in Jewish west Jerusalem neighborhoods where their families lived before l948"! Can you be more specific and count them with the fingers of your hands. If at all you "succeed" in this, the "numbers" you get will be so minuscule in scale in comparison with what Jews have been forced to loose as property in 1948 in the Jordanian occupied Old City and East Jerusalem ... West Jerusalem has been completely developed by Jews since the mid-18th century.
Auto-correction of MARIO BEHAR: "West Jerusalem has been completely developed by Jews since the mid-19th century (mid-1800s)."
Israel absorbed Jews of Arab lands. Arab nations should absorb Arab refugees held in squalor by UNRWA. Authorize UNHCR to resolve the problem.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.