US reassured Jews ahead of speech

But participants in conference call "blindsided" by President Obama's support for nuclear Iran.

obama cairo speech 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
obama cairo speech 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
The White House reached out to American Jewish leaders on the eve of President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo on Thursday, reaffirming US support for Israel and envisioning a peace process devoid of "rancor or ultimatums." On Wednesday night, administration officials convened a conference call with Jewish leaders, as they have done numerous times in recent months. Earlier, the administration sent a letter to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs outlining Obama's vision for peace in the Middle East, which calls for Israel to stop settlement construction and Palestinians to end incitement. Both efforts sought to soothe concerns leaders may have had as Obama traveled abroad to address the Muslim world. "The speech was going to have some difficult elements in it for those who care about Israel," said one individual who participated in the conference call, held at 5 p.m. Wednesday. The outreach also came as divisive issues have emerged between the Obama and Netanyahu governments, particularly concerning a two-state solution and Israeli settlement activity. On Wednesday, the Obama administration sent a letter to Hadar Susskind, the Washington director of the JCPA. "While we may have some differences of view with Israel at the moment over settlements, we are trying to work through them quietly, professionally, and without rancor or ultimatums, as befits a strong relationship with an important ally," said the letter, reported by the Politico Web site. "We are confident we can do that." For the most part, Jewish leaders praised what they described as a good-faith effort by the White House to reaffirm its commitment to Israel. During the call, officials shared elements of Obama's speech with participants. "The administration was saying, 'This is a priority for our administration in terms of engaging the Muslim world. Do not fear, we are not in any way compromising our commitment and our relationship with the state of Israel,'" said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, who has participated in previous discussions with Obama officials. Still, some took a pragmatic approach. "To me, all that matters is what his policies are," said one participant, who criticized what the president ended up saying about Iran on Thursday morning. According to participants, Iran was not mentioned during the call, and they were surprised to hear Obama voice his support for peaceful nuclear power in Iran. "We were completely blindsided by this statement," said another participant, adding that such a policy would enable Iran to develop nuclear weapons. But many also responded warmly to the historic speech. "The president made very clear to the Arab world that he was going to continue to prioritize Israel's peace and security, and that the US and Israel have an 'unbreakable bond,'" said Ira N. Forman, the CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council. But on Iran, the line was less clear. "The question is always not just what he says, but how it's perceived," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "It's one thing to offer to engage, and the other thing is, did you give enough of a message that a nuclear Iran will be intolerable?" Indeed, some did not think so. "I had understood that President Obama would stand resolute against the threat of a nuclear Iran," said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project. "I was deeply disappointed in his speech today."