U.S. President Barack Obama met with 15 American Jewish leaders at the White House for the first time on Monday. The president and the Jewish officials huddled for talks aimed at clearing the air following allegations that his administration was taking a tough line with Israel over settlement activity.
At the meeting, Obama told the leaders that he wants to help Israel overcome its demographic problem by reaching an agreement on a two-state solution, but that in order to do so, Israel would need "to engage in serious self-reflection."
On the Iranian nuclear issue, Obama told the leaders that "the door to dialogue is open. If the Iranians do not walk through it, however, we will have to see how we proceed. But it would be a mistake to talk now about what we're going to do and how we're going to do it."
One of the participants at the meeting asked the president to take a lower profile regarding the public differences between his administration and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the United States' demand that Israel freeze all settlement construction activity in the West Bank.
"This situation is not helpful," he told the president, who rejected the request, saying that during the eight years of the Bush administration, such disagreements were never made public but that such an approach was not helpful in advancing the peace process.
Obama added that there is a narrow window of opportunity for advancing the peace process and that he plans to speak openly and honestly with Israel - "a true friend of the U.S." - just as he did with the Arab nations in his speech at Cairo University in June.
Among the groups attending the meeting were the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the National Jewish Democratic Council, the Orthodox Union, the United Jewish Communities, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the American Jewish Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which is led by long-time Obama acquaintance Alan Solow, who requested the meeting.
"He [Obama] said that there is more progress than appears in the negotiations and spoke quite positively of the tracks between Mitchell and Barak and between the two administrations," said one participant, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents.
One major obstacle has been Israel's insistence on allowing some "natural growth" of existing settlements.
Hoenlein said Obama indicated that "there might be some opening for an understanding between the two parties. I don't know what the understanding is."
J Street: Obama said settlement growth not in Israel's interest
Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, a pro-Israel lobby group in Washington, said Obama stressed that further expansion of settlements was not in the interest of the United States or Israel.
"The president said that the gaps are narrowing and he did allude to progress and his hope that an agreement would be reached. He definitely alluded to that," Ben-Ami said.
He said members of the group urged Obama to visit Israel.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said Obama stressed that he was also pressing the Palestinians to take steps necessary for peace.
A spokesman for Stephen Savitsky, president of the Orthodox Union, said there was concern about what appeared to be one-sided pressure on Israel. The spokesman said Obama indicated that he intends in coming weeks to make more public what is being done to nudge the Palestinians as well.
A White House statement said Obama "reiterated his unshakable commitment to Israel's security, and reiterated his commitment to working to achieve Middle East peace."
Ben-Ami said that he believed that President Obama was asserting positions aimed at achieving two states for two peoples, a stance he claimed is supported by the majority of the Jewish community in the United States that voted for Obama.
Also Monday, Netanyahu met with the Quartet's Middle East envoy Tony Blair to discuss ways to improve the Palestinian economy. Netanyahu told Blair that the West Bank's Palestinian residents could achieve more if they were to increase their cooperation with Israel.
AJC praises Obama commitment to Israel's security
Following the meeting, the AJC praised Obama for the commitment to Israel's security he expressed Monday.
"The President could not have been clearer that his primary motivation in seeking to re-energize an Israeli-Palestinian peace process is Israel's long-term security," said Jason Isaacson, AJC director of government and international affairs, who participated in the Roosevelt Room session.
"Nor could he have been clearer in the priority he assigns to building international unity against Iran's drive for nuclear weapons capability."
According to the AJC, Obama focused the bulk of his remarks on Israel's security, emphasizing the right of Israel to defend itself, the close U.S.-Israel relationship, the obligations of the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states, and his administration's policy on Iran.
Isaacson added: "President Obama said he understood the difficulty Prime Minister Netanyahu faces on the issue of settlements, as well as on other policy questions that carry profound security and political implications.
"His message today was that, while important action has been taken on checkpoints and on security cooperation, there are hard decisions that have been avoided for too long and must be taken - for what he sees as the future well-being of Israel - and that as the Israeli government takes the difficult steps he asks, the United States will stand beside it."
Meanwhile, Ira Forman, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, told ABC News that Obama said the media sometimes plays up disagreements between the US and Israel.
The U.S. pressuring Arab countries is a "dog bites man" story, he quoted the president as saying, adding that Obama assured the participants that he has applied just as much pressure on the Palestinian Authority as he has on Israel in steps towards peace.
Obama said that in Arab media he is depicted as being too pro-Israel, ABC reported.
"Every time I'm shown on Al Jazeera they show me at the Western Wall with a yarmulke on," the president was quoted as saying.
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