WASHINGTON -- US President Barack Obama is worried that Palestinian leadership was no longer as interested in advancing toward peace, he said in a conversation with Orthodox Jewish leaders on Tuesday.
During the conversation, an Orthodox Union (OU) official asked Obama what lessons he had learned about promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace, considering how his first two years in office had been marked by tensions with Israel.
When it came to Israel, Obama asked the group not to doubt his "fidelity" to their cause.
Participants said that Obama rejected the notion that he was even-handed in his attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks; he insisted that the US posture was pro-Israel, for instance, in his calls for making Israel's security needs paramount in any final status deal.
He said his calls to freeze settlement expansion reflected the same positions of his four predecessors, and blamed differences with Israel in part on the quirk of history of a centrist US government and a right-wing Israeli government coexisting.
Obama said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to act without restraints, but that he understood him -- most leaders want to act without restraints.
He said peace was critical as the Arab democracy movement swept the region.
Another OU official reiterated the group's unhappiness with Obama's decision to require contraceptive coverage for employees at religious institutions not directly involved in religious activity, like hospitals or orphanages.
The official noted that the OU did not oppose contraceptive coverage, but was concerned that the two-tier system was confusing and represented governmental intrusion into matters of faith.
Roman Catholic groups have led the opposition to the mandated coverage, introduced by Obama earlier this year.
Obama said he was proud of his administration's record of defending religious liberty, but that the contraceptive coverage case presented him with a dilemma: How to protect the right of millions of women working at religiously run institutions.
He defended his solution, exempting purely religious establishments like churches and providing the contraceptive coverage through third party insurance companies, instead of the religiously run institution.
He said the solution allowed religious individuals who objected to contraceptive coverage not to participate, but simply to passively tolerate others receiving the coverage.
Obama's meeting with the Orthodox leaders on Tuesday was the second such meeting in a week; last week he met with leaders of the Conservative movement.
In both cases, he dropped in on meetings the leaders were having with Jack Lew, his Jewish chief of staff.
The meeting Tuesday, convened by the Orthodox Union, was friendly, in depth and constructive, participants on all sides said.
A White House official said that "the president discussed with the rabbis and lay leaders a variety of issues of mutual concern on issues related to both domestic and foreign policy. The president reiterated his unwavering support for Israel’s security and his commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”