Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew was repeatedly heckled and booed before a pro-Israel audience Sunday as he tried to make the case that the Obama administration has succeeded in curbing Iran’s nuclear program.
The unpleasant exchange prompted an Israeli government minister to give Lew a “warm hug” of encouragement.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew listens at a Bloomberg Government event on investing in U.S. infrastructure in Washington, April 27, 2015. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Speaking at the Jerusalem Post’s annual conference in New York, Lew said that Tehran has frozen and “rolled back parts of its nuclear program while we continue to negotiate on a longer term deal.”
Israeli media posted video of an excerpt during which Lew was interrupted at nearly every sentence.
"At that time, some denounced the interim understanding, known as the Joint Plan of Action. Some said Iran would cheat, that our sanctions would fall apart, [interruption] and that this program would allow Iran to move closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon [interruption]. But none of that came to pass [interruption]. Iran remains under enormous economic pressure. It has halted and scaled back key elements of its nuclear program [interruption]. And we have gained unprecedented insight into Iran’s nuclear activities [interruption]."
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who was at the conference, told Israel’s Army Radio Monday that he gave Lew a “warm hug” to show him he is considered a friend of Israel.
"I hope I was able to minimize the damage,” Steinitz said. “I gave him a warm hug and we talked about the incident. I hope I was able to some extent to repair the incident. Lew will remain a friend of Israel despite these unpleasant things. We need friends.”
Jerusalem Post editor in chief Steve Linde chastised the hecklers, whom the Post described as issuing “catcalls” and “sporadic jeers.”
“I would only ask that you listen to me as we listen to you,” Lew said in response.
Natan Sharansky, chairman of Israel’s Jewish Agency, said he was saddened by the crowd’s treatment of Lew and recalled that when the treasury secretary was an assistant to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, he worked to free Soviet Jewish dissidents trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
“He worked days and nights, taking families of Prisoners of Zion through all the corridors of power to make sure the Jews would be released,” said Sharansky, who Soviet authorities refused for years to allow to emigrate. “Many Soviet Refuseniks owe their lives to him and others for the successful efforts to release them.”
In his speech, Lew disputed a New York Times report last week documenting an increase in Iran’s nuclear fuel stockpile.
The Times reported that the International Atomic Energy Agency recently concluded that Iran had increased its nuclear fuel stockpile by 20 percent over the last 18 months of negotiations which the paper described as “partially undercutting the Obama administration’s contention that the Iranian program had been ‘frozen’ during that period.”
Lew said that “through painstaking verification, we have made sure that the Iranians are keeping their commitments - allowing us to continue the talks knowing that Iran was not simply using negotiations as a form of smoke and mirrors.”
“Even though Iran’s stockpile of uranium has gone up and down at various times over the past 18 months, this was something we anticipated and at each of the deadlines that have been set, Iran’s uranium stockpile levels have been within the levels that were agreed to,” Lew added.
Lew emphasized why a diplomatic resolution is worth pursuing, saying, “As history makes clear, we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to future generations to give diplomacy a chance.”
“Whether it was Nelson Mandela emerging from prison after 27 years to negotiate the peaceful end to apartheid, Ronald Reagan sitting at a table with a nation he called the ‘evil empire’ to negotiate the end to the Cold War, or Menachem Begin meeting at Camp David to negotiate a peace accord with Egypt, Israel’s sworn enemy - diplomacy is not conducted with our friends but with our adversaries,” the treasury secretary said. “When given a chance, smart, tough, hard-fought diplomacy can succeed.”