After Criticism of Israel, Bush Moves to Reassure American Jewish Leaders

In a coincidence of timing, President Bush hosted a dinner for Jewish leaders just at the moment he most needed to speak with them.

Bush used a dinner Wednesday for close to 100 American Jewish leaders to repair the damage from comments he made a day earlier, in which he blasted Israel’s attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader and said the action did not advance Israel’s security.

The comments outraged many Jewish groups, which said Bush was abandoning the principles of his war on terror and his landmark speech of last June 24.

The dinner was timed to mark the opening of a new Anne Frank exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. While many established Jewish leaders were not included — overlooked in favor of political contributors, rabbis and Jewish White House staffers — Bush nonetheless used the dinner to make his views clear.

One participant said no White House officials publicly justified Bush’s remarks Tuesday. Instead, Bush and others acknowledged the criticism they had received from the Jewish community and pointed to his comments following Wednesday’s suicide bombing in Jerusalem, in which he called on Arab states to aid the fight against terrorism.

Both in his formal remarks and in private conversations with Jewish leaders, Bush emphasized repeatedly that he still believed in the framework of his June 24 speech and that he saw Israel’s security as his top priority in the Middle East.

“Everything I heard him say was totally a reinforcement of the security of Israel and that it was not going to falter,” said Fred Zeidman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

Zeidman, who was appointed by Bush, said he believes there was some frustration in the White House because the latest violence came less than a week after Bush traveled to the Middle East for summits with Israeli and Arab leaders. That frustration may have led to the remarks, he said.

Other dinner guests said Bush called Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas “weak” and said that Arab support would be key for progress toward peace.

“He was very reassuring,” one participant said.

Despite this week’s surge in violence, the administration is continuing to push the “road map” peace plan. Administration officials said Thursday that veteran diplomat John Wolf would leave for Jerusalem as early as Saturday to lead an American team charged with monitoring day-to-day progress under the plan. It will be Wolf’s first trip to the Middle East since Bush announced his appointment at the summit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

An official said Wolf and David Satterfield, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, would stay in the Middle East for several days.

Secretary of State Colin Powell also is preparing to meet in Jordan on June 22 with leaders of the United Nations, Russia and the European Union — the Bush administration’s partners in drafting the road map — in an attempt to shore up peace efforts.

The discussions Jewish leaders had with Bush and others at the White House Wednesday night seemed to be reflected in White House spokesman Ari Fleischer’s comments Thursday.

Amid a new Israeli airstrike in Gaza, which killed civilians in addition to two Hamas members, Fleischer said the real issue was not Israel or the Palestinian Authority, but the continued violence of Hamas.

“The issue are these relatively small but deadly groups of terrorists who are trying to stop Israel and the Palestinian Authority from coming together at a time when they are, indeed, coming together,” Fleischer said. “That’s why they strike now. They strike now because they see peace on the horizon, and Hamas is an enemy to peace.”

On Wednesday, White House guests were taken by bus to the formal unveiling of the Holocaust Museum’s new exhibit on the writings of Anne Frank, which was officially opened by First Lady Laura Bush. They then were transported back to the White House for a reception and dinner.

It was the first time a completely kosher dinner was served at the White House, guests said.

“There was such a sense that everyone should feel comfortable,” one guest said.

In his pre-dinner remarks, Bush spoke of anti-Semitism around the world and of his commitment to Holocaust education, participants said.

“People who hate life and God target the people of God,” Bush reportedly said.

At the museum, Laura Bush recalled the couple’s recent visit to Auschwitz.

“I thought I knew my history,” the first lady said. “But I when I visited Auschwitz a few weeks ago, I realized there’s some things textbooks can’t teach.”

She spoke of being moved by the sight of thousands of eyeglasses of Holocaust victims, their lenses still stained from tears and dirt.

The exhibit, “Anne Frank the Writer: An Unfinished Story,” includes Frank’s photo album, the last of her three diary notebooks and some of her other writings. Most of the artifacts are on loan from the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation and have never been displayed in the United States.

The museum also has an online exhibition on its Web site at www.ushmm.org, including readings from Frank’s writings and historical photos and films.

Also on hand for the museum event was Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who swore in new members of the Holocaust council.

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