NEW YORK, Oct. 20 (JTA) — Before his first major meeting with American Jewish communal leaders, presidential hopeful Howard Dean ducked into a Manhattan sukkah to shake hands with local children and admire the homemade rings of construction paper they had draped across the outdoor hut. Later Friday afternoon, however, at a meeting at the Lincoln Square Synagogue, it took more than a photo-op and some handshaking to placate 26 representatives of Jewish groups. A former Vermont governor, Dean had vexed many members of the Jewish community last month when he recommended that the United States take a more “evenhanded” approach to brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace — a phrase generally taken to mean that the United States should not take Israel’s side. Dean backers say the comment was distorted by his opponents. Asked about his remarks during the closed-door meeting, Dean “covered his face with his two hands and shook his face as if to say ‘Oy, what a mistake that was,’ ” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. According to Harris, Dean said, “Israel is not just an ally, but a beacon of hope for people who were abandoned 2,000 years ago and who are afraid of being abandoned again. I will not abandon Israel, ever.” Devoting most of the meeting to foreign policy, Dean blasted recent anti-Semitic remarks by Malaysia’s prime minister, called for U.S. efforts to curtail Saudi Arabian incitement and support for terrorism, and urged pressure to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Dean got mixed reviews from the Jewish leaders. The group’s ambivalence is due, to some extent, to Dean’s departure from the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Like many of the Democratic candidates for president, Dean criticized Bush for allegedly disengaging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the start of his tenure. Dean spokesman Eric Schmeltzer said the meeting was intended for general discussion, not to address the flap over the candidate’s “evenhanded” comment. Dean’s camp said the meeting went well. “Gov. Dean learned much from his meeting with Jewish leaders and was grateful for the opportunity to hear from them as well as convey his strong support for the State of Israel,” said Matthew Dorf, a senior adviser to the campaign. Since the meeting was Dean’s first with Jewish communal leaders, however, many questions remain. “I don’t know that he changed anybody’s mind or materially improved the comfort level of those who weren’t comfortable coming in the room,” said Harvey Blitz, president of the Orthodox Union. “Dean has not really articulated any kind of an understanding about how ‘tough’ he’s going to be on the Palestinians,” including what benchmarks they must meet to be considered a “partner for peace,” Blitz said. But Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, characterized Dean’s Middle East platform as “mainstream.” Dean’s position is not “substantially different” from that of the other Democratic candidates or the current administration, Yoffie said. “If anything,” he said, Dean is “somewhat to the right.” The national co-chairman of the Dean campaign, Steven Grossman, is a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “I feel very comfortable that Howard Dean will represent another in a long line of presidents who have supported the State of Israel, provided Israel with the resources they need and been there through thick and thin,” Grossman said. Grossman, who chaired the Democratic National Committee under President Clinton, said Dean is “very much in the Bill Clinton tradition.” Dean has said he would like to appoint Clinton as a U.S. emissary to work for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Not everyone thinks that would be a brilliant idea. “Clinton did as much as anyone could do, and it didn’t bring peace,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Why criticize Bush for not doing enough? What Bush did do is sideline Arafat.” In any case, the alternative to “not doing enough” typically means pressuring Israel, Foxman said. “I’m not comfortable when they play politics with Israel,” he said. “I’m also not comfortable that his contemporaries in the party are playing politics with Israel.” Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, had a different take on Dean’s comments. “I think he’d be a more aggressive” president when it comes to pushing an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Rosenthal said.”I think that’s a good thing.” Furthermore, she said, Dean has “learned a really important lesson” about choosing his words. Foxman, who wrote to Dean criticizing his “evenhanded” comment, said Dean “is learning.” He said, “Most of us walked out feeling impressed by his knowledge, his sophistication, his grasp of the issues.” But, Foxman added, “I would say this was a getting-to-know-you meeting.” Many of the tough questions have yet to be asked, he indicated.