Jewish leaders seek more pressure on Palestinians, Arab states

Some of the Jewish leaders present at the White House meeting with President Obama on July 13, 2009 want the president to pick up the pressure on the Palestinians and Arabs. (White House)

Some of the Jewish leaders present at the White House meeting with President Obama on July 13, 2009 want the president to pick up the pressure on the Palestinians and Arabs. (White House)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Any good therapist will tell you: There’s pressure that hurts and there’s pressure that heals.

Two weeks after President Obama promised more of the latter, establishment Jewish groups are still squirming — complaining that the pressure on Israel is unrelenting, while pressure on Arabs and the Palestinians has yet to kick in.

Jewish leaders, who reached out to JTA to describe in greater detail their White House meeting with the president on July 13, say they see progress, but are concerned that an imbalance persists.

During the meeting, the leaders say, Obama said he had written to Arab leaders to press them on gestures that would allow Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reciprocate with similar concessions, including a settlement freeze.

Obama said he would follow up with phone calls, but more than a week later there are no signs that the outreach is making inroads. Instead, reports have leaked that the Saudis, in particular, are adamant that Netanyahu must move first.

Of greater concern, according to participants in the meeting, is that despite the president’s acknowledgment that he needed to do more to ameliorate the perception that he was pressuring only Israel, Obama kept apologizing for the Arab “street.”

Multiple times during the conversation, Obama said Arab and Palestinian leaders were “terrified” of their street. Jewish leaders at the meeting — including, notably, Lee Rosenberg, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s president-elect and a major backer of Obama during the presidential campaign — pushed back, saying that Netanyahu also was accountable to a skeptical public.

Leaders emphasized that overall, the meeting was positive. They said Obama showed engagement and depth, and had a clear understanding of the threat posed by Iran and demonstrated a commitment to isolating the Islamic Republic until it stood down from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

That said, much of the meeting dealt with matters of tone and whether Obama was making it harder for Netanyahu by openly pressing him. At one point, Obama grabbed the arm of Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff whose father is Israeli, and said, “Don’t think that we don’t understand the nuances of the settlement issues. We do. We understand there is a profound political edge to Israeli politics. But Rahm understands the politics there and he explains them to me.”

Especially frustrating for the leaders were Obama’s specific expectations of Israel — pre-eminently the settlement freeze — as opposed to how he used vagaries to describe his expectations of Arabs and the Palestinians.

“Everyone understands how to measure compliance with a demand to ‘freeze’ all settlement activity,” Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League who attended the meeting, wrote in a blog post appearing over the weekend on the Huffington Post Web site. “But there is simply no way to objectively calculate improving and extending ‘positive actions on security’ or acting ‘forcefully against incitement’ or refraining ‘from any action that would make meaningful negotiations less likely.’ There is no way to quantify the ‘steps’ Arab states should take ‘to improve relations with Israel’ or ‘prepare their publics to embrace peace and accept Israel.’ ”

During the meeting, Foxman challenged Obama to respond directly to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, who recently told The Washington Post that Palestinians need do nothing for now, as the Obama administration presses Israel to freeze settlement construction.

“Good point,” was all Obama would say.

Abbas’ wait-and-see approach vexed not only the centrist pro-Israel establishment, but also dovish activists who generally back the Obama administration’s tough posture with Israel.

“They say more things that serve the cause of peace than they don’t,” Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now said, describing the moderate Palestinian leadership. “But when they say things that don’t serve the cause of peace, that are damaging, they should be called on it. We’re dealing with two peoples who have grown a lot of scar tissue in the past two or three decades.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, who directs J Street, said the recalcitrance on both sides underscored the need for an active U.S. role in the process.

“It is unhelpful for anybody to only talk about what one side can do,” said Ben-Ami, who was at the White House meeting. “It is unhelpful for people to say all the obligations are on Israel’s side, on the Palestinians’ side.”

Within two days of the meeting with Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was delivering a speech to the Council on Foreign Affairs that emphasized expectations of the Palestinians and the Arabs, albeit in the non-specific terms that frustrated many of the Jewish leaders at the White House meeting. Notably, too, her comments on Palestinians were missing from the prepared text and appeared to have been inserted at the last minute.

“The Palestinians have the responsibility to improve and extend the positive actions already taken on security,” Clinton said, “to act forcefully against incitement; and to refrain from any action that would make meaningful negotiations less likely. And Arab states have a responsibility to support the Palestinian Authority with words and deeds, to take steps to improve relations with Israel, and to prepare their publics to embrace peace and accept Israel’s place in the region.”

AIPAC is working through the Congress to redress what it sees as the White House’s imbalance: U.S. Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and James Risch (R-Idaho) are circulating among their colleagues a letter, strongly backed by the pro-Israel lobby, that would press Obama to lean more on the Arab nations.

“Such steps,” the letter states, “could include ending the Arab League boycott of Israel, meeting openly with Israeli officials, establishing open trade relations with Israel, issuing visas to Israeli citizens, and inviting Israelis to participate in academic and professional conferences and sporting events.”

The letter praises Netanyahu for reiterating Israeli support for two states and for easing movement for the Palestinians. It makes no mention of the U.S. calls for a settlement freeze, essentially staying out of the fight on that issue between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government.

James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, challenged the logic of the letter, saying it is Netanyahu’s pressing forward on expanding some settlements that has frustrated Arab willingness to make some of the gestures for which Bayh and Risch are calling.

A number of Arabs nations ready to step forward are now more reluctant in the wake of Netanyahu’s declaration last week that he will not block expanded Jewish settlement in Jerusalem, Zogby said.

Zogby said that the message from his organization to Arab governments is, “Even if this is something you are loath to do, it is not a question of supporting Benjamin Netanyahu, it is a question of supporting Barack Obama’s initiative.”

Zogby bristled at the pressure on the Palestinians, in particular, particularly because he sees Israel trucking with terrorist groups while ignoring moderates.

“Hezbollah got the prisoner exchange, Hamas gets negotiations” on a prisoner exchange, Zogby said. “Where are the benefits” to Abbas, he asked. “If you want the Palestinian Authority to be strong, give them the tools to be strong.”

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