Jewish leaders impressed by Bush knowledge of Mideast

WASHINGTON (JTA) — When Jack Rosen went to the White House for dinner last week, he thought it would be like presidential receptions he had attended before.

"I expected we'd walk into a large room with several thousand people," said Rosen, the president of the American Jewish Congress. "I figured the president would make a speech, and we'd all go home and the president would make us feel good."

But the May 31 "working dinner" at the White House was vastly different from protocol. In what Jewish leaders called a "magical" and "extraordinary" event, President Bush, along with many senior officials, engaged American Jewish leaders and Israeli President Moshe Katsav in an intimate conversation about the fate of the state of Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians.

The event gave American Jewish leaders an opportunity to express their views on key Israeli issues directly to Bush, and for his administration to try to earn its Middle East credentials with a community that has been skeptical.

The White House spoke candidly about issues at the heart of the Middle East peace process. Jewish leaders said he was very receptive to adding the Palestinians' Force 17 security guard and Tanzim militia to the State Department's Foreign Terrorists Organization list next fall and discussed granting rewards for the capture of Palestinians responsible for the killing of Americans in Israel.

The administration also expressed an interest in providing the $800 million supplemental aid requested by President Clinton and Israel last year. The funds, requested over a two-year period, are intended to offset costs related to Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon last year and to the development of a program to defend against missile threats from Iran and Iraq.

While the supplemental budget request released last Friday did not include aid to Israel, Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly told the audience that it was still being considered.

Bush's personal interest and knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict surprised several American Jewish leaders.

"He led the conversation," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "He had a very hands-on knowledge of the area, its problems and challenges."

Since Bush took office in January, there have been few public statements by the White House on the Middle East conflict, certainly nothing near the personal involvement that Clinton had during his time in office.

The lack of public comment has led to the popular opinion that this was a president who is uninterested in the Middle East.

But given the escalation of violence in recent weeks, the administration has increased its attention to the region, naming special envoys and endorsing an international report that set guidelines for ending the violence.

Even so, the personal involvement of Bush, Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney at the dinner, as well as senior advisers Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer, made an impression on the Jewish leaders.

"I walked away from that evening feeling this is a president who knows right from wrong and good guys from bad guys," Rosen said.

Bush also used the meeting to stress that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat would not be visiting the White House in the near future. Bush reportedly told Jewish leaders that an invitation to the White House is his trump card against Arafat and said he intended to use it.

The dinner was considered a direct outreach effort by Bush to the Jewish community. Jews gave the former Texas governor less than 20 percent of their vote last November. And while Bush's plans for education and faith-based initiatives spark concern among many Jewish leaders, Bush made friends last week by voicing strong support for Israel, always a top priority of the Jewish community, especially during times of unrest.

"Privately and publicly this administration has said time and time again that Israel is a friend and an ally," Foxman said. "They are concerned about its safety and security."

In addition to Rosen and Foxman, the Jewish leadership at the meeting included: Max Fisher and Mel Sembler, honorary chairmen of the Republican Jewish Coalition; Ronald Lauder, chairman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Mayer Mitchell and Lonny Kaplan, former presidents of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; Stephen Solender, president of the United Jewish Communities; Richard Heideman, president of B'nai B'rith International; Bob Goodkind, chairman of the board of governors of the American Jewish Committee; and Bonnie Lipton, president of Hadassah — The Women's Zionist Organization of America.

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