Obama tries to allay U.S. Jews concerns over Israel

In his first official White House meeting with U.S. Jewish leaders, President Barack Obama said there is a mistaken perception that the United States is pressuring Israel more than it is pressuring Palestinians or Arab countries.

Instead, he spoke of the need for Palestinian and Arab leaders to take steps toward Israel, suggesting that effort would become more pronounced in the coming weeks and emphasizing his bedrock commitment to Israel’s security, according to participants.

Several representatives from the 14 Jewish groups that participated in the July 13 closed door meeting described Obama as blaming the media for the “misperception” that Israel needs to do more than the Arabs at this stage.

President Barack Obama. photo/the white house/pete souza

The meeting came with Obama facing sharp criticism from Jewish conservatives in the media who claim the president is bent on scaling back U.S. support for Israel. In particular, critics have cited the Obama administration’s repeated calls for an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank.

The consensus of those in the room was that on substance, Obama had their support when it came to his peacemaking strategies — or, at least, he did not face opposition.

However, a day after the meeting, one of the participating groups, the Orthodox Union, issued a press release saying it is “deeply troubled” by Obama’s desire to play an “evenhanded” role in the Middle East.

“The Orthodox Union asks our president to recognize that there are no moral equivalencies between Israel, which has acted time and again to defend itself while actively seeking peace, and those who reject Israel’s legitimacy and make war against her,” said OU President Stephen Savitsky, one of 16 Jewish leaders at the meeting.

Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said, “the president indicated he had a sensitivity to the perception of that imbalance and had to work harder to correct that perception.”

Alan Solow. photo/jcc association

Ira Forman of the National Jewish Democratic Committee, said Obama stressed he fully appreciated how difficult the challenges were. “He must have said a dozen times, ‘This is really hard.’ This is not sitting around the campfire singing ‘Kumbaya,’ ” said Forman, who praised Obama’s grasp on the region’s complexities.

One participant quoted the president as saying that “there’s not a lot of courage among the Arab states; not a lot of leadership among the Palestinians.”

But Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman said that while he was impressed with Obama’s response, he still disagreed.

“The public insistence on what Israel has to do on settlements has had the consequence of making Israel look like the obstacle to peace,” he said, while the Arabs and Palestinians have dug in their heels.

According to two participants, Obama spoke about the likelihood that Israel would retain the major settlement blocs in any final peace deal with the Palestinians, but said it was an issue that needed to be resolved between the parties.

Israel has maintained that it should continue building in the current settlements precisely because they are expected to remain with Israel, a point made clear in a letter former president George W. Bush wrote to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. The Obama administration has declined to endorse the document.

However, the Obama administration and Israel reportedly are close to agreeing to a formula that would allow Israel to finish about 2,500 “almost complete” units now under construction in the West Bank.

At the end of the meeting, Americans for Peace Now President Debra DeLee suggested that Obama visit Israel to deliver his message directly to Israelis as a way of emphasizing his commitment to Israel and reassuring Israelis that he is concerned about their well-being.

Ron Kampeas of JTA contributed to this report.