WASHINGTON (JTA) — Top Jewish organizational leaders expressed support for President Obama’s Middle East peace strategies at a White House meeting but said the president must do a better job of showing he expects hard work from all sides, not just Israel.
Obama’s meeting Monday afternoon with 16 Jewish leaders from 14 groups comes after weeks of tense exchanges between the Obama administration and Israel’s government over freezing Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, prompting expressions of "concern" from some U.S. Jewish organizational leaders.
"The view was expressed among the organizations at a minimum there was concern about an imbalance in pressures placed on Israel as opposed to on the Palestinians and Arab states," Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JTA. "The president indicated he had a sensitivity to the perception of that imbalance and had to work harder to correct that perception."
One participant quoted the president as saying that "there’s not a lot of courage among the Arab states; not a lot of leadership among the Palestinians."
The consensus was that on substance, Obama had the support of the room when it came to his peacemaking strategies — or, at least, he did not face opposition.
The meeting comes as Obama faces sharp criticism from Jewish conservatives in the media who claim the president is bent on scaling back U.S. support for Israel. In particular, critics have cited the Obama administration’s repeated calls for an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank.
At least two of the leaders of centrist organizations who attended the White House meeting — Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — have said they are increasingly hearing from people who are worried about Obama’s intentions, including some who voted for him.
Liberal groups are rejecting such claims, saying that the president and his approach to advancing Israeli-Palestinian talks enjoy the support of most American Jews.
The two representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, president David Victor and president-elect Lee Rosenberg, asked non-confrontational questions about Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively, and did not press the settlements issue.
Rosenberg and Solow, who are both from the Chicago area, were major fund-raisers for Obama’s presidential run.
Some of Obama’s most ardent critics — including the Zionist Organization of America and the National Council of Young Israel — were among the notable absences from the list of those invited to the White House.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, delivered a ringing endorsement of Obama’s demands for a settlement freeze, saying that settlement expansion was not in Israel’s interest.
Such pronouncements are likely to reinforce the growing perception in the Israeli government that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to garner significant support among U.S. Jews should the disagreement with Obama over a settlement freeze escalate into a full-scale confrontation.
Top officials close to Netanyahu are debating how to treat the reluctance among U.S. Jews to back what they now call "normal living" conditions in the settlements — a euphemism for natural growth. Some Netanyahu advisers suggest writing off much of the U.S. Jewish community in the short term, maintaining relations only with those groups sympathetic to Netanyahu. Others suggest intensive outreach to left-leaning Jews.
Concerns about a potential confrontation may be moot. The United States and Israel reportedly are close to agreeing to a formula that would allow Israel to finish about 2,500 "almost complete" units now under construction in the West Bank. That would allow Israel to claim settlement growth was continuing while the Obama administration would describe it as an effective freeze.
The only signs of contention — from Foxman, the ADL’s national director, and Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference — had to do with how Obama was handling his demand for a settlements freeze, not with its substance.
Hoenlein said that peace progress was likelier when there was "no daylight" between Israel and the United States. Obama agreed that it must always be clear that Israel has unalloyed U.S. support but added that for the past eight years, referring to the Bush administration, there was "no daylight and no progress."
"There was a lot of appreciation by the broad spectrum of the Jewish community of the president’s clarity on Israel and the absolute alliance between Israel and the United States," said Nancy Ratzan, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women.
It was Foxman who raised the concern of a perception that Obama was leaning harder on Israel than on the Palestinians and Arab states.
Obama conceded the point — to a degree — saying it was the result of "man-bites-dog" coverage of a relatively unusual circumstance: a U.S. president pressuring Israel. He said he would make it clear that he expected the Palestinians to contain violence and end incitement, and that Arab nations should make gestures toward Israel commensurate with Israel’s concessions.
"If you really read everything he’s written and said, it is clear there are multiple parties that have obligations and steps," said Jeremy Ben Ami, director of J Street, a left-wing pro-Israel group.
"He’s going to call out the Palestinians and the Israelis and the Arab nations."
On the issue of Iran, Obama said his strategy of outreach as a means of persuading the Islamic Republic to end its nuclear weapons program was still in place, although he recognized that the Iranian government was entrenching itself in the wake of riots triggered by June 12 elections denounced by many Iranians and westerners as rigged.
Obama said progress had been made in persuading other nations, especially Russia, to sign on to his carrots-and-sticks strategy on Iran — offering incentives and threatening a harder line.
The emphasis was on foreign policy, but Obama fielded questions on domestic issues, including his efforts to introduce universal health care and end hunger among American children.
Also present at the meeting were representatives of Americans for Peace Now, the Orthodox Union, the United Jewish Communities, Hadassah, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the American Jewish Committee.
A day after the meeting, the OU expressed concern at Obama’s repeated pledges to be "even-handed" in dealing with Israel and its Arab interlocutors.
"The Orthodox Union asks our President to recognize that there are no moral equivalencies between Israel, which has acted time and again to defend itself while actively seeking peace, and those who reject Israel’s legitimacy and make war against her," OU President Stephen Savitsky said in a statement.
Participants said the meeting, at a round table in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, was relaxed and friendly.
"The comfort level was magnificent; there were no notes," said Ira Forman, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Obama teased Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, and David Axelrod, his top political adviser, both of whom attended the meeting and are Jewish.
"If Axelrod or Rahm ignore you, don’t blame me," he said.
Ha’aretz published a story last week in which it claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu had privately referred to both Obama aides as self-hating Jews. A Netanyahu spokesman, Mark Regev, was later quoted by The Plum Line blog as denying the claim, saying “I’ve never heard the prime minister use such language.”
Meanwhile, one of Obama’s most prominent Jewish backers, Alan Dershowitz, has received harsh criticism from some Jewish conservatives for writing an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal defending the president.
The critics are accusing Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor with a long track record of fighting anti-Israel efforts on campus, of essentially abandoning Israel out of loyalty to the Democratic Party.
In response, Dershowitz wrote a piece in FrontPageMagazine.com saying he believes that “a young, extremely popular African American President who supports Israel, even if he disagrees with its policies regarding settlement expansion, would be far more influential with mainstream Americans and with people throughout the world than an old conservative Republican, who also supported Israel.”
“That is why,” Dershowitz wrote, “I gave, and continued to give, President Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt in his dealings with Israel.”