Obama 311 reuters.
(photo credit: Reuters)
US President Barack Obama said Israel has an opportunity to move forward with
the peace process in the midst of the current Middle East upheaval, and urged
Jerusalem to make progress rather than hunker down, according to US Jewish
leaders who met with him on Tuesday.
While Obama expressed understanding
for the concerns of Israelis as protests roil the Arab world, he said that it
was essential to try to make progress, and suggested such momentum in the peace
process could help ease the Jewish state’s international isolation.
was very concerned that Israel has become increasingly isolated. He expressed
that as something he wanted to help Israel deal with and solve,” said one of the
close to 50 representatives in the meeting of the Conference of Presidents of
Major Jewish Organizations at the White House on Tuesday afternoon. “The
overarching theme was that some progress in the peace process would assist in
decreasing the isolation.”
Participants, all of whom spoke on condition
of anonymity, said Obama expressed concern that Israelis society had not had
fully engaged in the debate on territorial compromise, with one attendee saying
the president “wondered aloud if avoiding the hard soul-searching is
demographically sustainable for Israel, or compatible with Israel’s Jewish and
democratic values in the long run.”
He also said he understood Israeli
frustration with Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, but
maintained they offered the best chance for achieving peace and felt a greater
urgency to do so in the wake of Arab protests across the region that they fear
could end up strengthening Hamas.
A Jewish organizational official at the
meeting said Obama said two things needed to happen: The Palestinians need to
feel confident that Israel’s elected government is prepared to discuss
territorial compromise, and Israelis need to feel confident that Abbas can
Throughout, several participants reported, the president noted
that there could and would be disagreement between the Jewish community and his
administration over tactics, but his “intentions” on supporting Israel shouldn’t
be questioned. He pointed to increased US military aid to Israel, shared values
between the countries and American efforts to end the delegitimization of Israel
in international forums.
Though several members of the Conference of
Presidents welcomed Obama’s recent decision to veto a UN Security Council
resolution condemning Israeli settlements, some expressed concern about a
statement accompanying the resolution that criticized construction in the West
Bank and other ways in which the US cushioned the veto.
A participant at
the meeting said that in his conversations with White House officials, he was
told the US “needed to do something to show balance” given the wide support for
the resolution and the delicacy of Arab public opinion at this historical
Overall, the participant said, “His comments were very supportive
of Israel and the Jewish people. He said it extremely well and extremely
He described Obama as “down to earth, straight-forward, a guy
who really appears to be concerned about Israel.”
But not all of those at
the hour-long meeting were assuaged by what they heard.
walked in with concerns walked out with the same concerns,” one Jewish leader
said. “If the White House hoped to win new friends and change minds in this
session, that seems not to have happened.”
It was the first full meeting
with the conference, though many representatives of member organizations had
been present at a meeting Obama held with Jewish leaders in 2009. This
conversation, requested by the Conference of Presidents, came as Middle East
governments are being toppled and threatened, and the peace process has been
stalled. Obama spent some time addressing the stability and implications of the
demonstrations in various countries, and criticized Iran over its suppression of
He also criticized the Tehran leadership on the
nuclear front, saying that after the recent fruitless conversations between
international powers and Iranian leadership, “we could expect more in the way of
Iran sanctions,” according to a participant.