WASHINGTON − U.S. President Barack Obama told Jewish leaders this week that Israel must use its military, political and cultural strength to create a context for peace with the Palestinians, according to participants of a 50-member delegation that met with Obama at the White House.
Obama also told the delegates of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that Washington was committed to supporting Israel and its security but that the Palestinians don’t feel confident that the Netanyahu government is serious about territorial concessions, participants said.
“The president reassured us about the U.S. commitment to Israel’s sovereignty and security,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism and one of the delegates of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “But he did talk about the fact that Israel is the stronger party here, militarily, culturally and politically. And Israel needs to create context for it to happen.”
Delegates at the Tuesday meeting said Obama indicated that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was intent on establishing a state during his tenure and was amenable to a reasonable peace deal.
The delegation was led by Conference of Presidents chairman Alan Solow and executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, who thanked Obama for “the extraordinary session.”
“The open lines of communication with President Obama and his administration are highly valued and provide us with the opportunity to articulate the views of American Jewry on issues that face our country,” the delegation leaders said in a statement.
During the meeting, Obama shared his views on the turbulence in the Middle East, the recent veto of a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlement construction, and prospects of peace between Israel and its neighbors.
There were conflicting reports about what exactly Obama told the Jewish leaders, with some on the right interpreting his call for soul-searching as criticism. However, the Conference of Presidents said in a statement that it viewed the meeting as positive.
“Contrary to certain public reports, the meeting was conducted in an atmosphere of warmth, friendship and openness and there was no expression of hostility toward Israel or its government,” the statement read.
Wernick lauded Obama for what he called a “balanced and fair” approach to the stalled peace process.
“I think the president was consistent in hinting that both sides have to demonstrate greater seriousness for it to occur,” he said in reference to a peace deal.
“I asked the president specifically about the Palestinians creating a context of peace in their culture, especially after the Palestinian leaks showed there is a big difference between their public and private statements,” said Wernick. “He said there is an opportunity in the region for a rigorous debate. He asked for soul-search for everyone. I think he was talking about the objective reality that both sides need to think if they indeed want peace − he spoke specifically about [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and Israeli leadership, but he spoke also about Palestinians.”
Wernick said the delegation thanked the president the Security Council veto at the Security Council.
A White House statement described the meeting as “productive” and noted “America’s unshakable support for Israel’s security, opposition to any effort to delegitimize it or single it out for criticism, and commitment to achieve a peace that will secure the future for Arabs and Israelis alike.”
“The U.S. and Israel are bonded by core values and commitment to democracy − and part of that is the opportunity for citizens to engage with their government,” White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said earlier this week. “[Obama] believes it’s vital for us to hear directly from Americans from all walks of life, including the Jewish community − and as he said in the meeting yesterday, their input absolutely gets factored into our policy and decision-making process.”
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said “you could see the relations with this community are incredibly important for the president. It’s a relationship that we value.”
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