A political fixture in New York, former Mayor Ed Koch, now 87 years old, has remarkably created new relevance for himself in recent years through vocal activism on national and local issues, most notably centered around President Obama and his relationship with Israel, which is perceived by many to be hostile. Koch was among the President’s most outspoken critics in the early part of his presidency but has since come round to back the President. In an exclusive interview with The Algemeiner days before Tuesday’s presidential election, Mr. Koch addressed a number of pressing issues that are of enhanced interest and concern to Jewish voters.
The interview will be published in five separate parts, divided according to subject. The first installment below, focuses on President Obama and Israel, and why Koch muted his early criticism to support the President for re-election.
AJ: Let’s get to the details of the President and Israel, which has been a subject of a lot of discussion. I’m sure many people have asked you about this. You were one of the foremost critics of the President’s approach to Israel. What changed?
EK: I want to think — I believe I changed him. I believe that – did you see the third debate?
EK: Did you see Bob Schieffer say to him in the opening question, ‘Would you take the position that an attack upon Israel by Iran would be considered an attack upon the United States?’ Did you see that?
EK: Okay, that is what I have been advocating since I last saw the president over a year ago. And the answer conveyed to the world was that the president and Romney both accepted that position; that’s what Bob Schieffer believes.
AJ: So when would you say was the point of movement? From my understanding you actually met the President at an event at the New York Public Library?
EK: Well that was after I defeated, helped defeat, the democratic candidate in the Anthony Weiner district, and elect a Republican Irish Roman Catholic to send a message to the president that in a district where you have the largest concentration of Jews in any congressional district that they would stand up and repudiate you because they believed you were wrong. And they thought he was wrong in the way he treated Netanyahu.
I thought so too, and I said so. I think he’s changed. I think I changed him. I believe that one of the most important things I’ve done in my political life was to do what I did in that district so that when the New York Times described the victory, they quoted an expert who said, referring to me, ‘He’s 86, he’s out of office 22 years — it’s amazing.’ That was the quote. I’m very proud of that. I believe as a result of that the president changed his position.
AJ: So you feel that was the turning point, that once that election happened the President changed his mind?
EK: Yeah. He doesn’t believe that his positions were different. I said to him – he spoke to me for 20 minutes out of a half hour and he said, ‘I don’t know why the Jewish community thinks I’m hostile. I’m very supportive,’ and he went on to explain that. And I said to him, ‘Mr. President, when you announced that Israel should go back to the ’67 borders I wouldn’t have attacked you, even though I disagree with you because those borders are indefensible, if you had at the same time denounced Hamas and said Israel does not have to negotiate with Hamas.’ And he said, ‘Didn’t I say that?’ And I said, ‘No, you did not.’
So you see in his own mind he thought he had said it.
AJ: So all this took place at that meeting at the New York Public Library?
EK: Correct, and that was about two or three weeks after the election.
AJ: Do you still communicate with the President, or the White House on these issues?
EK: I don’t want to indicate that I’m an intimate of the president. I’m not. I’m pleased that he knows my name. He invited me to the State of the Union, not the State of the Union; he invited me to a state dinner for Cameron. He was very friendly to me, and he introduced me to David Cameron, the Prime Minister (of the U.K.). He said, ‘This is Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City,’ and David Cameron said, ‘I studied you in school.’ I thought to myself, ‘Am I that old?’
AJ: There’s also been a lot of talk that obviously, this is the game of politics. People modify positions when they need to in politics, and there’s a lot of skepticism out there over the President. In fact, I don’t know if you’ve seen this quote from Haaretz Journalist Ari Shavit last year who said that “Right now President Obama is like a lion in a cage when it comes to Israel.” He says “there will immediately be a very strong attack and Israel will find itself in a very sharp crisis if the president is re-elected.” Don’t you think that this is just politics? Obama understands what he needs to say to get re-elected.
EK: I want to say to you, I get those letters, you know, that say, ‘Why do you believe him?’ That’s what you’re saying. My response is that I have met with him a sufficient number of times to come to the conclusion that he is an honorable man.
AJ: So it’s your judgment of his character.
EK: Yes. He will keep his commitments.
AJ: If there is a scenario where the President is re-elected and, let’s say goes back to publicly criticizing building in North Jerusalem, as he has done in the past, how would you react?
EK: Yes, I think he was wrong. And if he says it again I would still say he was wrong.
AJ: So you were saying at the time that he wanted to make Israel into a pariah. So my question is, if he did it again once he was re-elected, would that prompt you to take the same position as you took at the beginning of his term again?
EK: Of course. I don’t expect that to happen. I mean, you have to make a judgment on the basis of your experience. You have to have confidence in him. I have confidence in my own judgment.