AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today, the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, defended the emerging nuclear deal with Iran. He told an audience of American Jews the deal the Obama administration is pursuing is both realistic and achievable. McDonough got his biggest applause when he defended the White House commitment to a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in doing so, slammed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson was there, and she joins us now. And Mara, to begin, tell us about J Street. That's the organization whose conference McDonough chose to deliver these remarks.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, just as there are deep divisions inside the state of Israel, which you saw in the elections, there are the same kind of divisions in the American Jewish community. So J Street is basically the liberal counterweight to AIPAC. And in the debate now raging in the Jewish community in the United States, J Street is the pro-two-state group and anti-Netanyahu, pro-nuclear-deal and generally much more supportive of Obama than AIPAC is. And in the subtle game of power dynamics in Washington, D.C., it is no accident that the White House sent Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, to J Street, and they sent two lower-ranking officials, Samantha Power, the UN ambassador, and Susan Rice, the national security adviser, to AIPAC.
CORNISH: Now, the White House has been quite open about its unhappiness with Netanyahu after he said during his election campaign that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch. How did McDonough address that today?
LIASSON: Well, the White House is keeping the pressure on. McDonough said we cannot pretend those comments were - weren't made, so all the efforts that Netanyahu has made to walk them back insisting he hasn't changed his position - the White House is basically saying, you showed us your true colors. Your previous support for a two-state solution was so hedged and so grudging, now we know you didn't mean it. But, McDonough said the two-state solution is still the U.S. goal, and the tone he took was very sharp today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DENIS MCDONOUGH: An occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end, and the Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state. Peace is necessary because it's the only way to ensure that a secure state of Israel is both Jewish and democratic.
LIASSON: And he went on to say Israel cannot maintain military control over another people indefinitely. I cannot think of a time when a top U.S. official spoke that way about the occupation. And the point that the White House is making - without a two-state solution, Israel's future will be either no longer Jewish or democratic - is one that the president made over the weekend. And it's a worry, I did hear from a lot of people at the J Street conference, which is, if Israel annexes the Palestinian territories, the Palestinians will demographically soon outnumber Jews in Israel, and you're no longer a Jewish state or they can continue to occupy 4 million people who have no rights. Then you're no longer a democracy. And that would just continue and further Israel's isolation. That's the argument McDonough made today.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, Mara, what about Iran? That's another area where the White House is at odds with Netanyahu and also with fierce criticism from Capitol Hill.
LIASSON: Well, McDonough used the speech to J Street to push back against Netanyahu's arguments and ramp up the White House lobbying efforts to get Congress to give the negotiations with Iran some more time. He said the White House wouldn't agree to a bad deal. The one they're pursuing is realistic and achievable. There was a letter today sent to the president signed by 367 members of the House - it was bipartisan - warning that before they lift any Congressional sanctions, they have to be satisfied that Iran has no pathway to a bomb. And today, McDonough said that was also the White House position - to cut off every pathway.
He said Congress will have time in the future to weigh in and decide whether or not to lift statutory sanctions. But the bottom line, he says, is this is our best shot at diplomatically resolving this. If the U.S. Congress is blamed for scuttling the deal, then international support for sanctions falls apart and Iran is free to pursue a nuclear weapon very quickly.
CORNISH: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.
LIASSON: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.