(photo credit: AP [file])
In their first official White House meeting, US President Barack Obama tried to reassure American Jewish leaders that there was a mistaken perception that the United States is pressuring Israel more than the Palestinians or Arab countries.
Instead, he spoke of the need for Palestinian and Arab leaders to take steps toward Israel, suggesting that effort would become more pronounced in the coming weeks and emphasizing his bedrock commitment to Israel's security, according to participants.
Several representatives from the 14 Jewish groups that participated described Obama as blaming the media for the "misperception" that Israel needs to do more than the Arabs at this stage, equating it with a "man bites dog" story when the US criticizes Israel as opposed to the Arab states.
The settlement issue, and the related tensions over the subject between the US and Israel, which have concerned some in the Jewish community, were a major focus of the nearly hour-long encounter which participants nonetheless described as "warm" and "friendly."
In fact, several in attendance said Obama referred to the dispute over the settlement issue - in which the US has publicly pressed Israel to halt all settlement construction, including for natural growth, despite Israel's insistence that it can't comply - as a "family" debate.
"People seemed to be quite satisfied that he used that term," said one Jewish leader.
Another, Ira Forman of the National Jewish Democratic Committee, said Obama stressed he fully appreciated how difficult the challenges were. "He must have said a dozen times, 'This is really hard.' This is not sitting around the campfire singing kumbaya," said Forman, who praised the president's grasp on the complexities of the region.
But Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman said that, for his part, while he was impressed with Obama's response, he still disagreed.
"The public insistence on what Israel has to do on settlements has had the consequence of making Israel look like the obstacle to peace," he said, while the Arabs and Palestinians have dug in their heels.
"He understood why we are anxious," Foxman said. "He understood and said they have to find ways to [emphasize] the requirements they have made of the Palestinians."
Obama also indicated that US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were close to reaching an agreement on the settlements after weeks of shuttling back and forth.
According to two participants, he also spoke about the likelihood that Israel would retain the major settlement blocs in any final peace deal with the Palestinians, but said it was an issue that needed to be resolved between the parties.
Israel has maintained that it should be allowed to continue building in these settlements precisely because they are expected to remain with Israel, a point made clear in a letter former president George W. Bush wrote to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon before the Gaza disengagement. The Obama administration, however, has declined to publicly endorse the document.
"It's important that he acknowledged that reality," said Nathan Diament of the Orthodox Union, whose president, Stephen Savitsky, was among the 16 attendees - including representatives of the three major Jewish streams - present in the room.
Diament was also glad to see that "the president acknowledged there's certainly a perception problem that the US is pressing Israel and not the other side."
Obama also spoke about Iran, which one participant described as clearly an issue the president is taking "very seriously," with several different options being considered in the wake of the recent violence over the disputed presidential election, though no decision has been taken.
Iran was one of the few agenda items mentioned in a terse statement about the meeting put out by the White House later Monday, describing a "substantive discussion, ranging from Middle East peace efforts and Iran to reforming our health care system and policies to address global hunger."
The statement concluded, "The President reiterated his unshakeable commitment to Israel's security and reiterated his commitment to working to achieve Middle East peace."
At the end of the meeting, Americans for Peace Now President Debra DeLee suggested that Obama visit Israel to deliver his message directly to Israelis as a way of emphasizing his commitment to Israel and reassuring Israelis that he is concerned about their well-being.
While Obama did not respond to the request at the time, according to those in the room, there has been discussion that the president might make such a trip as part of his policy of active engagement in the Middle East.