WASHINGTON (Dec. 11)
Heartened by a week of staunchly pro-Israel comments from the White House, U.S. Jewish leaders had little to quibble about after a Chanukah meeting with President Bush.
Jewish leaders from a wide spectrum of organizations who spent about an hour with Bush on Monday walked away impressed with the depth of his knowledge and his resolve to combat terrorism and support Israel.
“I think he was as good as any president can be with regard to support of Israel and the Jewish community,” said Jack Rosen, the president of the American Jewish Congress. “It doesn’t get better than that.”
Others among the 29 Jewish leaders, who represented 19 different organizations, described the meeting as “spectacular” and an “impressive performance” by Bush.
“I have never heard any American president, from Reagan to Clinton, ally himself so closely with the Israeli position,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
Bush made clear that organizations that target Israel will be dealt with in later phases of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, specifically naming Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.
Bush also spoke of his early December meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and said he thinks Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat needs to do more to curb violence.
He added that America should press Europe to support Israel so the Palestinians can not appeal for European support as a means of avoiding U.S. pressure.
The meeting, which focused exclusively on international affairs, came as the White House and the American Jewish community seem to be coming closer on the issues of the day.
Last week’s suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa sparked a major shift in U.S. policy toward the Palestinians, as the White House increased pressure on Arafat to curb violence and openly questioned his ability as a leader.
At the same time, the administration did not call on Israel to respond with restraint, as it often does after an attack.
Shortly afterward, Bush started to crack down on the financial supporters of Palestinian terrorists, freezing assets of the Holy Land Foundation and two other groups that funnel money to Hamas.
Anthony Zinni, the U.S. envoy in the region, has shifted his role in keeping with the new U.S. viewpoint. No longer actively seeking a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, he has been pressuring Arafat to do more to combat terrorism.
Meetings with the president generally render more sympathetic, pro-Israel comments from the White House than normal. Because the public comments have been so positive of late, however, Monday’s meeting was simply a reinforcement.
“He was very clear that the pressure at this moment is on Arafat, not on Israel,” Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said of Bush. “He spoke quite extensively, without equivocation.”
The relationship between the Bush administration and the American Jewish community had been on shaky ground immediately after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington.
While many expected the United States to have empathy for Israel’s plight, Jewish leaders believed the administration was unfairly pressuring Israel to win Arab support for the coalition against terror. The Bush administration was called hypocritical for criticizing Israel’s policy of targeted killing of terrorist leaders, while the United States pursued a similar strategy in Afghanistan.
The recent suicide attacks have again changed the landscape and placed the White House and the Jewish community on the same page.
“We’ve come full circle,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “What we believed would be at Sept. 12 has finally come about.”
Many of the Jewish community’s lingering concerns were considered too insignificant to mention at the meeting. Those include the U.S. view on Israel’s policy of “targeted killings” of Palestinian terrorists and the role of Syria and Iran in the coalition against terror.
“It’s hard to be critical that he hasn’t done 100 percent when he has done something close to that,” Rosen said of Bush.
One contentious issue addressed was the issue of military tribunals. Bush assured the leaders, many of whom are concerned about violations of civil liberties, that the tribunals would be used rarely.
The president said more action needs to be taken to educate Arab and Muslim children about freedom and democracy, a reference to school textbooks and media in the Middle East that frequently bash Israel and foment anti- Semitism.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice also attended Monday’s meeting, which was part of a daylong celebration of Chanukah. The day included the first-ever lighting of a menorah in the White House residence, as well as a party that included renditions of Chanukah favorites by the U.S. Marine Corps band and choir.
A former White House liaison to the Jewish community said such meetings with the president almost always are marked by good feelings.
“Almost invariably, the Jewish community became putty when they actually saw the president,” said Marshall Breger, who served in the Reagan administration and is now a law professor at Catholic University in Washington.
But veteran Jewish leaders say there was something different about Monday’s meeting.
“I don’t think anyone walked out disagreeing” with Bush, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization. “This is a guy who is intent on translating intentions into results.”