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 the president at the White House on Tuesday.
Obama stressed to the delegates of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that Washington was committed in its support for Israel and its security.
But some of the delegates, who asked not to be named, also said that the president hinted that Israel must do some soul-searching regarding its commitment to peace.
Obama relayed that the Palestinians "don't feel confident that the Netanyahu government is serious about territorial concessions,” said participants. Obama also indicated that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was set on establishing a state during his tenure and be amenable to an acceptable deal if offered, said the delegates.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO and Executive Vice President of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, 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. 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 Netanyahu and Israeli leadership, but he spoke also about Palestinians," added Wernick.
"He spoke about Iran and Syria, and expressed optimism regarding the revolution in the Arab world – but cautious one. That we have incredible opportunity to create context for that to happen. What most impressed me was his command of the issues and the ability to try to craft a reasonable strategy considering the reality of circumstances. I thought he was extremely balanced and fair."
“People who have negative views about this administration will have them reinforced. I am convinced that the President is 100% supportive of Israel and has a desire to reach peace between Israel and the Palestinians," said Wernick. "He and his advisers stated explicitly and repeatedly that the U.S. remains committed to Israel's security.
"I didn’t get a sense they are tired of the process. They are looking for ways to promote it – the problems that he raised are that Palestinians are concerned about territory and national determination and Israelis are concerned about their security," added Wernick.
"We thanked the President for making the veto at the Security Council and the President reassured us about the U.S. commitment to Israel’s sovereignty and security. 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."
A White House statement defined the meeting as "productive," citing the President, and emphasized "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 delegation was led by Conference of Presidents Chairman Alan Solow and Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, who thanked the President 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," they said.
During the meeting that lasted about one hour, Obama shared with his guests his view on the turbulence in the Middle East, the recent veto of the resolution at the United Nations Security Council that condemned settlement construction, and prospects of peace between Israel and its neighbors.
Following the different emerging reports regarding the meeting, the Conference of Presidents issued a second statement on Thursday, in which it stressed that the meeting with Obama was a positive one.
"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.
"In fact, the President stated his unequivocal support for the strong relationship and the unbreakable bonds between the United States and Israel and his personal commitment to working with Israel in these challenging times."
The delegation also met with Dan Shapiro, Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council, who usually briefs the Jewish leaders on the current administration's positions vis-à-vis Middle Eastern issues, Dennis Ross, Special Assistant to the President, who addressed J Street's annual conference as the administration’s representative; and David S. Cohen, the Department of Treasury’s Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, who spoke about sanctions against Iran.
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