Obama Meets with Skeptical Jewish Leaders

U.S. President Barack Obama at the G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy, Friday, July 10, 2009. AP Photo

President Barack Obama told Jewish leaders Monday that eight years of U.S.-Israeli unison in demanding Palestinian concessions has produced no results and asked leaders to give him time to try his tactics for a Middle East peace.

Obama assured 16 Jewish leaders that the United States remained steadfast in its commitment to Israel's security. But during a private hour-long White House meeting, the president told guests that he was asking Israel and the Palestinians alike to take concrete steps toward restarting peace talks and that would require sacrifices from both sides.

Obama met with the leaders, who have fretted that he is being too critical of longtime ally Israel and too lenient toward Palestinians and their Arab neighbors. They privately complained that Obama delivered a speech to the Muslim world during a trip to Cairo but skipped a stop in Jerusalem.

"I think people were very direct with the president in expressing their views. ... I think the president was very candid in responding," said Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Participants shared their concerns that his public call for Israel to follow through on its pledges to stop settlements went too far, especially during an Oval Office session with reporters. Obama replied that he's telling his Israeli friends in public the same thing he has said during private meetings, according to those in the Roosevelt Room on Monday.

Some participants in the meeting flatly told Obama that only when the United States and Israel are in lockstep support is any progress made. Obama replied that there was no distance between the U.S. and Israeli positions for the last eight years, and that no progress was made under President George W. Bush.

"Where people pushed back, the president stood firm," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, a pro-Israel and pro-peace political action committee and lobby.

Obama has been blunt in his demands for both the Israelis and the Palestinians to make good on their promises designed to bring about peace in the troubled region. To leaders, Obama reiterated the United States' commitment to Israel and redoubled his pledge that U.S. policy would never threaten that country's security.

"No one could leave that meeting with any doubt about Obama's commitment to Israel," said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Many left believing that Obama means well, but not necessarily convinced the United States' revamped strategy will resolve the conflict that has vexed U.S. presidents for decades.

"I think I share some of the same anxiety that others might have shared. ... But I'm prepared to give this new president an opportunity, not just prepared, but I support him taking a slightly different approach than we're used to," said Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

"I think he went a long way toward reassuring me, personally, about the good faith intentions and that the relationship (with Israel) is as strong as it's ever been," Wernick said.

Participants and White House officials said Obama didn't introduce any new proposals during the discussion but spent the bulk of the time seeking comments and trying to allay concerns.

Obama did, however, return to a favorite complaint: that U.S. journalists were seeking conflict, overemphasizing the importance of Israeli settlements and missing achievements in peace talks.

"He said that there's more progress than appears in the negotiations," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman and CEO of Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
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