Jul 13, 2009

JTA: At White House, U.S. Jews offer little resistance to Obama policy on settlements

JTA: At White House, U.S. Jews offer little resistance to Obama policy on settlements

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 two representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, president David Victor and president-elect Lee Rosenberg, asked friendly 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 loudest critics -- the Zionist Organization of America and the National Council of Young Israel, among them -- were among the notable absences from the list of those invited to the White House.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of 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 Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League's national director, and Malcolm Hoenlein, the Presidents Conference's executive vice chairman -- 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 eight years 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 there was progress in persuading other nations, especially Russia, to sign on to his carrots-and-sticks strategy on Iran -- offering incentives and threatening a harder line.

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.

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 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.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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