Obama: J'lem should make progress on peace

US president tells Jewish leaders at Conference of Presidents meeting that momentum in negotiations can ease Israel's int'l isolation.

Obama 311 reuters (photo credit: Reuters)
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.
“He 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 deliver.
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 moment.
Overall, the participant said, “His comments were very supportive of Israel and the Jewish people. He said it extremely well and extremely strongly.”
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.
“People that 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 opposition protesters.
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.