WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama told a group of Orthodox rabbis on Tuesday that the Palestinian leadership might now be too weak to make a deal with Israel, according to those with knowledge of the closed-door meeting.
Obama said that his sense that the political position of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad might quickly deteriorate was one reason he had pushed so aggressively for a peace agreement in the first two years of his term, participants said.
Though Obama assessed that the two men’s positions had indeed deteriorated, making any effort toward a solution more difficult, he told the group of more than a dozen religious leaders that he still intended to pursue peace.
Asked what he had learned from his initial foray into forging a deal between Israelis and Palestinians, Obama’s first response was that the process was a difficult one, they said.
Obama said that both sides needed to act and that the Israeli notion that he had required unilateral steps from Jerusalem was inaccurate, but that the public and media paid less notice to the demands also made of Palestinians.
Additionally, Obama said that while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had wanted to avoid constraints when it came to issues such as settlements, the president expressed understanding for his desire since all world leaders want to act without constraints – a comment which those in the room described as eliciting laughter.
Some were also struck by Obama’s remark that he has, if anything, been more attentive to Israel’s perspective and needs than Palestinians, a point seen as pushing back against those who have accused the president of favoring the Palestinians or being evenhanded.
Obama said that while the Orthodox community shouldn’t doubt his fidelity to Israel’s cause, they also shouldn’t think that the US has to agree with Israel on every single issue to be a friend.
Similarly, the group of rabbis stressed points of agreement with the administration, such as on the need to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and the importance of Homeland Security funding for US Jewish institutions. There were also disagreements.
In particular, the delegation raised its concerns over adequate funding for those enrolled in private schools and the new insurance mandate covering contraception. The latter issue has incensed the Catholic Church, and while the Orthodox leaders said their views on contraception differ, they explained they were worried about the religious freedom implications of a mandate for policies that violate religious beliefs.
The meeting, organized by the Orthodox Union and its Washington director, Nathan Diament, with White House Chief-of-Staff Jack Lew, is the second such meeting members of the Jewish community have had at the White House in recent weeks. Last month, leaders of the Conservative Movement held a similar conversation with Lew. In both cases, Obama dropped by during the meeting.
Obama also recently addressed the Reform Movement at its biennial convention.