JTA: "At White House, U.S. Jews offer little resistance to Obama policy on settlements"
By Ron Kampeas · July 13, 2009
WASHINGTON (JTA) -- Top Jewish organizational leaders expressed support for President Obama's Middle East peace strategies at a White House meeting but said the president must do a better job of showing he expects hard work from all sides, not just Israel.
Obama's meeting Monday afternoon with 16 Jewish leaders from 14 groups comes after weeks of tense exchanges between the Obama administration and Israel's government over freezing Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, prompting expressions of "concern" from some U.S. Jewish organizational leaders.
"The view was expressed among the organizations at a minimum there was concern about an imbalance in pressures placed on Israel as opposed to on the Palestinians and Arab states," Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JTA. "The president indicated he had a sensitivity to the perception of that imbalance and had to work harder to correct that perception."
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."
The consensus was that on substance, Obama had the support of the room when it came to his peacemaking strategies -- or, at least, he did not face opposition.
The two representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, president David Victor and president-elect Lee Rosenberg, asked friendly questions about Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively, and did not press the settlements issue. Rosenberg and Solow, who are both from the Chicago area, were major fund-raisers for Obama's presidential run.
Some of Obama's loudest critics -- the Zionist Organization of America and the National Council of Young Israel, among them -- were among the notable absences from the list of those invited to the White House.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, delivered a ringing endorsement of Obama's demands for a settlement freeze, saying that settlement expansion was not in Israel's interest.
Such pronouncements are likely to reinforce the growing perception in the Israeli government that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to garner significant support among U.S. Jews should the disagreement with Obama over a settlement freeze escalate into a full-scale confrontation.
Top officials close to Netanyahu are debating how to treat the reluctance among U.S. Jews to back what they now call "normal living" conditions in the settlements -- a euphemism for natural growth. Some Netanyahu advisers suggest writing off much of the U.S. Jewish community in the short term, maintaining relations only with those groups sympathetic to Netanyahu. Others suggest intensive outreach to left-leaning Jews.
Concerns about a potential confrontation may be moot. The United States 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. That would allow Israel to claim settlement growth was continuing while the Obama administration would describe it as an effective freeze.
The only signs of contention -- from Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League's national director, and Malcolm Hoenlein, the Presidents Conference's executive vice chairman -- had to do with how Obama was handling his demand for a settlements freeze, not with its substance.
Hoenlein said that peace progress was likelier when there was "no daylight" between Israel and the United States. Obama agreed that it must always be clear that Israel has unalloyed U.S. support, but added that for eight years there was "no daylight and no progress."
"There was a lot of appreciation by the broad spectrum of the Jewish community of the president's clarity on Israel and the absolute alliance between Israel and the United States," said Nancy Ratzan, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women.
It was Foxman who raised the concern of a perception that Obama was leaning harder on Israel than on the Palestinians and Arab states.
Obama conceded the point -- to a degree -- saying it was the result of "man-bites-dog" coverage of a relatively unusual circumstance: a U.S. president pressuring Israel. He said he would make it clear that he expected the Palestinians to contain violence and end incitement, and that Arab nations should make gestures toward Israel commensurate with Israel's concessions.
"If you really read everything he's written and said, it is clear there are multiple parties that have obligations and steps," said Jeremy Ben Ami, director of J Street, a left-wing pro-Israel group. "He's going to call out the Palestinians and the Israelis and the Arab nations."
On the issue of Iran, Obama said his strategy of outreach as a means of persuading the Islamic Republic to end its nuclear weapons-program was still in place, although he recognized that the Iranian government was entrenching itself in the wake of riots triggered by June 12 elections denounced by many Iranians and westerners as rigged.
Obama said there was progress in persuading other nations, especially Russia, to sign on to his carrots-and-sticks strategy on Iran -- offering incentives and threatening a harder line.
The emphasis was on foreign policy, but Obama fielded questions on domestic issues, including his efforts to introduce universal health care and end hunger among American children.
Also present were representatives of Americans for Peace Now, the Orthodox Union, the United Jewish Communities, Hadassah, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the American Jewish Committee.
Participants said the meeting, at a round table in the White House's Roosevelt Room, was relaxed and friendly.
"The comfort level was magnificent; there were no notes," said Ira Forman, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Obama teased Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, and David Axelrod, his top political adviser, both of whom attended the meeting and are Jewish.
"If Axelrod or Rahm ignore you, don't blame me," he said.
Ha'aretz published a story last week in which it claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu had privately referred to both Obama aides as self-hating Jews. A Netanyahu spokesman, Mark Regev, was later quoted by The Plum Line blog as denying the claim, saying: "I've never heard the prime minister use such language."
Yedioth Ahronoth: " Obama to Aides: Guys, We're Going to Israel"
by Orly Azulai -- US President Barack Obama is considering the possibility of visiting Israel and addressing the Israeli people directly-as he did when he addressed the Muslim world in Cairo.
In the last number of days, aides to the president met with leaders of the pro-Israel organizations in Washington. The initiative to visit Israel was raised in the course of a discussion that Obama held yesterday with representatives of the American Jewish organizations, who told him that a visit of that sort could be very helpful and might prompt the citizens of Israel to feel that the president was committed to their security. In the middle of the meeting Obama turned to his aides and said to them: Guys, we're going to Israel.
In the meeting he held with leaders of the Jewish organizations last night in the White House, President Obama spoke about the differences between the US administration and the Israeli government on the settlement issue, and said that the media reports had created a mistaken impression. Obama said to the representatives of the Jewish organizations: We need to adjust the way in which we deal with the issue so that the impression of imbalance isn't formed. It is clear to us that some of the settlements will remain in Israeli hands because that is the reality on the ground, but what exactly will remain and how that is going to be done-those are all issues to be negotiated between the sides, said Obama.
In the course of the conversation, some of the participants said they were uneasy with what they said was the fact that Obama was applying more pressure on Israel than he was on the Arab states. Obama replied: The disagreements we have Israel on the settlement issue are like fights within the family. A misapprehension has arisen that I'm pressing Israel more than the other side. That isn't true. We are pressuring the Palestinians and the Arab states, and I can assure you that that is immense pressure.
The meeting was also attended by President Obama's Jewish aides-Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod and Dan Shapiro. In the course of the meeting Alan Solow, Chairperson of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that it was exceedingly important that President Obama speak directly to the Israeli people, as he did in Cairo when he addressed the Muslim world. Deborah (sic) DeLee of Peace Now repeated Solow's request and said that a visit to Israel would bolster the sense that Obama was committed to Israel's security and to its future as a Jewish and democratic state. Everyone talks about the Arab street, said Lee Rosenberg of AIPAC, but there's also an Israeli street and it needs to be spoken to as well.
The various people who attended the meeting said that it was their impression that Obama was seriously contemplating making a trip to Israel in the near future. The president said: I'm trying to develop a framework that in the course of the future will give security to Israel. My commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable.
A number of the people who attended the meeting with President Obama said to him that while they supported his demand that settlement activity be halted, they had a problem with the tone in which things had been said. A number of times in the course of the meeting Obama repeated his dissatisfaction with the fact that the US administration's demand that Israel completely suspend construction in the settlements had been interpreted as a grave crisis between the two countries. He repeatedly underscored that the alliance between the United States and Israel was strong, and said that he would make an effort along with his team so that his steps were not misunderstood. The president said twice that he was applying immense pressure on the Palestinians and the Arab states, mainly about good will gestures that would be forthcoming towards Israel if it were to announce a freeze on settlement activity.
ABC News Blog - Power, pop, and probings from ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper
"President Obama to Jewish Leaders: Every Time I'm on Al Jazeera They Show Me at the Western Wall with a Yarmulke On"
July 13, 2009
In the Roosevelt Room this afternoon, President Obama met with 16 leaders of the American Jewish community for approximately an hour, discussing the Middle East peace process, Iran, health care reform and global hunger.
Ira Forman, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, tells ABC News that the president -- joined by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod, both of whom are Jewish -- spoke for approximately 10 minutes about his strategic vision for Mideast peace.
"He talked about Israel as a Jewish state with no hesitancy," Forman said. "He also reiterated what he has said before about the fundamental bond between Israel and the United States and the fundamental commitment the US has, no matter what disagreements there are, to Israel's peace and security."
One participant said that the perception is that the Obama administration is applying more pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas recently seemed to suggest to the Washington Post that all the concessions that need to be made are by Israel, and Palestinians can wait it out until Netanyahu's government fails.
The president, Forman said, argued that the media sometimes plays up disagreements between the US and Israel - the US pressuring Arab countries is a "dog bites man" story, the president said -- and he assured the participants that he has applied just as much pressure on the Palestinian Authority as he has on Israel in steps towards peace.
The president said that in Arab media he's depicted as being too pro-Israel.
Every time I'm shown on Al Jazeera they show me at the Western Wall with a yarmulke on, President Obama said.
"And you look good in it, too," one participant in the meeting joked.
Another participant argued that Israel negotiates for peace from a stronger position when its leaders feel there is no public disagreement between Israel and the US.
The president disagreed, Forman said, saying that while it's essential that Israelis are convinced of America's deep commitment to Israel's safety, his administration has to be honest about family disagreements. But he reiterated that progress in the peace process isn't just Israel's responsibility, and said Israel deserves credit for recent steps including opening up roads and providing more access for Palestinians in the West Bank.
A representative from another one of the groups present tells ABC News that the president said his administration would have a sense by the Fall if the Iranian leadership is going to "demonstrate seriousness" in terms of re-engaging with the international community. If Iranian President Ahmadinejad chooses to engage, "we have a package of engagement," and if not, the Obama administration is working to line up other measures.
Forman said the president showed a real comfort level in the meeting, joking and politely disagreeing on occasion.
In addition to Forman, participants included: Alan Solow, Chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Lee Rosenberg, President-elect, AIPAC; David Victor, President, AIPAC; Malcolm Honlein, Executive Vice Chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Abraham Foxman, National Director, Anti-Defamation League; Jason Isaacson, Director of Government and International Affairs, American Jewish Committee; Nancy Ratzan, President, National Council of Jewish Women; Kathy Manning, Chair, Executive Committee, United Jewish Communities; Andrea Weinstein, Chair, Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Marla Gilson, Washington Director, Hadassah; Stephen Savitsky, President, Orthodox Union; Rabbi Steven Wernick, Executive Vice President and CEO, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President, Union for Reform Judaism; Debra DeLee, President and CEO, Americans for Peace Now; and Jeremy Ben Ami, Executive Director, J STREET.