US President Obama speaks in White House Rose Garden 370.
(photo credit: Yuri Gripas / Reuters)
WASHINGTON -- US President Barack Obama told Jewish leaders Thursday that he would not be bringing a peace plan with him on his trip to Israel this month, but left the door open to a possible diplomatic initiative later in his term, according to meeting participants.
Obama met with some nearly two dozen leaders in an off-the-record briefing that lasted over an hour and touched on Iran, Turkey and Hezbollah as well as the Palestinian issue.
"The president started by saying he was not interested in delivering a peace plan. He wants to listen to where the parties stand and focus on regional issues" such as Syria and Egypt, according to one person familiar with the meeting who spoke to The Jerusalem Post
on condition of anonymity.
Speaking of the peace process again later on, the source said, Obama told the group that "he intends to focus on it, to see how he can help move things further along."
Asked by one participant separately about the stance of the Europeans, noting that they supported the Palestinians in their bid for unilateral statehood, Obama was said to have agreed that the EU has taken a flawed approach that has hindered US efforts such as getting the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terror organization.
But he added that their perspective comes from deep frustration that there's no peace process. One participant said that Obama also indicated that frustration was felt by some in the administration and it was an attitude that had to be dealt with.
Obama also criticized the statements made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan equating Zionism with a crime against humanity, and said he had personally instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to speak out against the comments.
At one point, a Jewish leader in the meeting pressed the president to articulate a harder line on Iran, arguing such statements were important.
The president, participants said, reiterated his long-held positions that all options are on the table when dealing with Iran and that the United States was dedicated to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon rather than containing the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
But he stressed that diplomacy was the preferable path and that it was important that the US offered Iranian leaders a ladder to climb down from the positions they have staked out.
Meeting attendee Nathan Diament, Washington director of the Orthodox Union, urged the president to stress the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel when he speaks publicly during the trip.
Though Obama did not go into detail about what he would be telling the Israeli people on his visit, he did note that he had turned down an opportunity to address the Knesset in favor of delivering a speech to students at the Jerusalem Convention Center. He explained that he wanted to reach out to young people rather than politicians.
Obama, according to participants, who described the conversation as warm, also spoke of his interest in seeing Israel's societal and technological achievements during his trip.
Jerry Silverman, president of The Federations of North America, who attended Thursday's meeting, welcomed Obama's taking time to meet with Jewish leaders ahead of his trip in two weeks.
"We are proud to see our president visit our ancient homeland and engage with the Israeli people," he said. "The president's trip is yet another demonstration of the continued strength of the deep and historic bonds between the United States and Israel."