White House pushes negotiations without preconditions

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel addresses delegates at the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington, Nov. 10, 2009. (Robert A. Cumins / Jewish Federations of North America)

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel addresses delegates at the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington, Nov. 10, 2009. (Robert A. Cumins / Jewish Federations of North America)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Rahm Emanuel urged Palestinians and Israelis to launch negotiations without preconditions, echoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call.

“All issues should be resolved through negotiations,” said the White House chief of staff, speaking here Tuesday at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. “Unilateral actions should be avoided and cannot dictate the outcome.”

Emanuel called this “a time of peril but also of opportunity.”

Netanyahu has called for negotiations without preconditions, but Palestinian leaders say they will not negotiate without a full Israeli settlement freeze.

Emanuel spoke Tuesday in place of President Obama, who canceled his planned GA appearance to attend a memorial service for the victims of the shooting at Fort Hood, Texas.

On Monday, Netanyhau in his GA address called for the immediate resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.

“Let us seize the moment to reach an historic agreement; let us begin talks immediately,” Netanyahu said, appealing to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Netanyahu chided the Palestinians for turning aside what he and the Obama administration have suggested is an “unprecedented” offer to freeze some settlement construction while allowing for “natural growth” and building in Jerusalem.

“No Israeli government has been so willing to restrain settlement activity,” he said.

Netanyahu did not mention earlier Israeli preconditions, including leaving off the table for now Jerusalem and refugee issues, and a refusal to deal with Hamas, the terrorist group in control in the Gaza Strip.

He also lavished praise on Obama, who sustains strong support among American Jews but is unpopular in Israel. The Israeli prime minister thanked Obama for opposing efforts in the United Nations to advance the Goldstone report, which accuses Israel of war crimes during last winter’s Gaza war, for sustaining the U.S.-Israel security relationship, and for leading international efforts to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Obama and Netanyahu met behind closed doors in the White House on Monday evening. Emanuel said Tuesday that the meeting was “very positive” and that he was “absolutely confident that Prime Minister Netanyahu understands completely the strategic importance of moving this peace process forward.”

Emanuel defended the administration from those who he said have portrayed attempts to open dialogue with the Arab world as showing a diminished level of support for Israel, or come at Israel’s expense.

“That is not the intent and that is not the case and never will be,” Emanuel said. “It is only through dialogue that we can achieve the lasting peace Israel seeks.”

He also denied that the administration had singled out Israel for criticism on settlements, saying that the administration’s position was consistent with those of previous administrations on the issue, as well as with the “road map” peace plan.

“No one should allow the issue of settlements to distract from the overarching goal of lasting peace,” Emanuel said.

In addition to noting that his son and nephew would be celebrating their bar mitzvahs in Israel this spring, Emanuel also spoke of his family’s roots in Israel and the “privileged point of view” he has had seeing Israel’s “value as a homeland.”

The chief of staff also touched on domestic issues, saying that last weekend’s vote by the House of Representatives on health care legislation brought the United States “closer than ever to achieving” health care reform. He said the domestic priorities of Obama match with the Jewish Federations of North America’s priorities — “don’t leave our neighbors behind and work for fairness and justice for all.”

Emanuel’s speech came a day after leaders of the Jewish Federations met with Obama and other top administration officials at the White House.

Monday afternoon’s hourlong reception, scheduled after Obama had to cancel his Tuesday speech to the GA, featured short remarks from Obama. Mostly, though, attendees had a chance to talk one on one with the president and White House senior staff.

Obama, who dropped by for about 30 minutes, said that the Jewish Federations of North America “perform every day of every week selfless acts of tzedakah,” according to a person present at the meeting, and spoke about his experience with Chicago’s Jewish federation. He also made a pitch for health-care reform, talking about the importance of passing it and stating that he could “see the light at the end of the tunnel.” He also said he looked forward to his meeting with Netanyahu that evening.

White House staff at the meeting included Emanuel; top advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett; Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag; National Security Council staffer Dan Shapiro; Office of White House Public Engagement director Tina Tchen; and White House Jewish outreach officials Susan Scher, who is also chief of staff to Michelle Obama and Danielle Borrin.

“We were thankful to have an opportunity to directly discuss a number of our concerns with the administration’s senior team and look forward to continuing to reach out to them in the future to ensure the voice of the Jewish community is heard loud and far in Washington,” Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations, said in a statement.

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